There are lots of sparrows. Excepting birders, they get little play or press. I was mildly self-disgusted to scroll back through the roster of nearly 400 Dispatch columns I’ve written to date and see that I’ve written about them only thrice. And now, a fourth time.
On a recent frosty morning, Ohio State University biology professor Shauna Weyrauch and I ventured to Slate Run Metro Park in northern Pickaway County. A highlight of the 1,700-plus acre park is a sprawling conservation area on the park’s western border. Numerous wetlands, meadows, thickets, and woodland patches create a diversity of habitat.
Birds were our targets and quarry was plentiful. A pair of giant sandhill cranes offered great looks. The big birds have nested here, and this may have been the local pair. Less conspicuous was five Wilson’s snipe that rocketed from a thick patch of smartweed. Yes, snipe actually exist beyond the campfire legends of “snipe hunting”.
I was pleased to hear the rough “jit-jit” notes of a ruby-crowned kinglet. While a common migrant earlier in fall, by late November the tiny bird is rare. Its tinier relative the golden-crowned kinglet was common, as was our hardiest warbler, the yellow-rumped warbler. Several purple finches, down from the North Country, were also present.
But it was sparrows that consumed much of our attention. We detected eight species, and missed another, the field sparrow, that was surely present. Although the temperature was only in the high 20s, sunny conditions stimulated much singing among the sparrows. A fox sparrow gave its slurred drunken whistles, somehow melded artfully into a pleasing aria. Well-named song sparrows delivered their complex tunes, and white-throated sparrows whistled from thickets.
We were especially pleased to come across a band of white-crowned sparrows. This species nests far to our north, in taiga and tundra habitats. Adults sport crisply striped heads — think Michigan Wolverines football helmet, but with the stripes black and white. Duller first-year birds were also present, and the bird in the photo was one of them. It was born last summer, and it’ll take the better part of a year to develop the natty headgear.
Although white-crowned sparrows are not particularly shy, they were mostly busy seeking seeds in thick cover. Their airy buzzy songs gave them away, and thus guided to their honey holes, we were occasionally rewarded with views when one teed up on a plant.
White-crowned sparrow song is a delight to the ear: a mellifluous series of whistles and buzzes infused with a rather melancholy tone. While some adults sang and did so perfectly, the as-yet unpolished juveniles were more conspicuous to my ear, in the way that an un-tuned guitar would be. Young white-crowns begin their singing lessons within a few months of hatching, but mastering the melody takes much practice.
Young white-crowned sparrows must learn their songs from adults, and lesson one begins almost immediately upon fledgling. They imprint the song of nearby males, creating a mental model that they will later learn to duplicate. Then comes the plastic (adaptive learning) phase, in which young sparrows practice their songs to be. This formative period lasts throughout winter and into spring, and it was this raw product that we heard much of on our Slate Run expedition. The youngsters sound unpolished, akin to a kid early on in his or her musical lessons on a recorder. There are imperfections in notes, sequence and overall delivery.
By the time these as yet amateur avian musicians reach their northerly breeding grounds late next spring, they’ll be able to sing like Pavarotti. Practice makes perfect, even in the bird world. And when it comes to sheer aural elegance, few of our birds can match the sparrows.
Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.