Monday, April 2, 2012

The melodious Song Sparrow

Photo: John Pogacnik

Tiny song sparrow belts out the tunes
The Columbus Dispatch
Sunday April 1, 2012

Jim McCormac

One of the most pleasing melodies in suburban Ohio is created by one of our plainest birds, the song sparrow.

Although the 20-gram earth-toned songster lacks visual pizazz, few of our birds can sing as well.

Its scientific name hints at this vocal prowess: Melospiza melodia (melodia means a pleasant song).

Song sparrows coexist well with humans and thrive in gardens, weedy lots, urban parks and other heavily populated places. Almost everyone is probably within earshot of a song sparrow, and you might even have a pair nesting in your yard.

Very few songbirds occur as widely in North America as does the song sparrow. Although the adaptive little birds do fine in suburbia, they also occupy some of the most isolated places on the continent, such as the Aleutian Islands off Alaska.

Their wide geographic distribution has stimulated evolution of many distinct forms, and 24 subspecies of song sparrows have been described.

Song sparrows have been in full tune for several weeks; they frequently will be one of the first birds you hear in the morning. Throwing his head back like a feathered Pavarotti, the sparrow issues a sweet torrent of complex trills interspersed with clear, bell-like notes.

Margaret Morse Nice certainly noticed song sparrows. Life’s obligations, including marriage and five daughters, kept the Massachusetts native from her passion of natural-history study for much of her early adult years. That changed when her husband accepted a position at Ohio State University in 1927, and the family moved to Columbus.

The Nices owned 60 acres along the Olentangy River, near the OSU campus. It was there that Margaret Nice embarked on groundbreaking studies into song sparrows’ behavior. Her eight-year project was probably the most detailed life-history study yet conducted of a North American animal, culminating in the 1937 publication of Studies in the Life History of the Song Sparrow.

“Nice almost single- handedly initiated a new era in American ornithology,” legendary biologist Ernst Mayr said.

At the time of Nice’s song-sparrow research, most scientists focused on collecting birds and studying their appearance and distribution, rather than spending time in the field observing how birds behaved.

Today, many students of zoology study birds in the wild. But it took a Columbus woman and her infatuation with a meek but melodious sparrow to usher in a new age of natural-history study.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first and third Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at

Further afield

Internationally acclaimed biologists Peter and Rosemary Grant will present a lecture, “How and Why Species Multiply: Evolution of Darwin’s Finches,” on April 18 at Ohio Wesleyan University.

The talk will begin at 7:30 p.m. in Gray Chapel in University Hall, 61 S. Sandusky St., Delaware.

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