Song Sparrows are Our Often Overlooked Miniature Musicians
By Lisa Hug
This summer I would like to feature a common, yet often overlooked bird in our area—the Song Sparrow.
This bird does not get a lot of attention. It is small and brown.
I’ve already lost most of you with “small and brown.” But, wait! It also has streaks of various shades of sepia, cinnamon, sienna, umber, chocolate, slate, ebony, onyx and taupe. Okay, various shades of black and brown against an off-white background. Song sparrows often skulk in low bushes, so you have to be aware of them to notice them. Once you do, “they’re everywhere.”
One of the most widespread, popular, and commonbirds in North America... it has its very own Facebook Page: facebook.com/groups/489482811234717/.
What it lacks in bright colors, it makes up for in song repertoire.
This bird can really sing. If you have ever been on any trail in Sonoma County, you have heard song sparrows. Males sing year-round. They have one of the most musical songs of any local bird. It is quite ornate. It only lasts a couple seconds, but it is repeated frequently. The first few notes are very clear, followed by a raspy trill and ending with a few more clear notes. Interestingly, ornithologists have recorded over 500 variations of this basic song structure – but it always somehow recognizable as “song sparrow.” An individual song sparrow can have up to 15 different variations on its own song.
Song sparrows actually have a sort of “language.“ The song described in the previous paragraph is generally used by the male to advertise a nesting territory that it has chosen. It also serves to announce to the female that he is available to be a mate. Hence, the song is heard most often in the spring. Occasionally, females will sing to drive away competing females from their mate, but this is rare. Females more frequently use a descending gurgling warble to communicate that they are near a nest. Juveniles will use a high-pitched persistent “seep” to attract adults carrying food to them. Song sparrows can often be heard giving single loud “chump” calls. This is a danger warning. It is often used to communicate that humans or house cats (their number one threat) are nearby. They also have a separate “tsik” note to indicate that a predatory hawk is nearby.
Song sparrows are so abundant in this area is because they can have three or sometimes even more broods of young per season. That means that a pair of song sparrows will make 3 different nests and each nest may raise between one and five young.
A pair of song sparrows will start nest construction in this area in March. The female does most of the nest building, “often with intense interest of the male. The male devotes himself more to song than to labor (doi.org/10.2173/bna.704.)” The female will incubate the eggs for approximately 13 days. Once the eggs hatch and the nestlings appear, the male begins to help the female by bringing insect food to the young. After about 16 days, the nestlings leave the nest as short-winged, bob-tailed “fledglings.” These fledglings will often be cared for by the male, while the lays another clutch of eggs. While the male is feeding fledglings from the first nest, the female is incubating eggs in a second nest. This process can be repeated one or even two more times in a season.
Young males begin practicing their songs when they are about 15 days old. They imitate their father and other males in the vicinity. At this stage, their song is malleable. Sometimes, they will lay low in a bush and experiment with different song variations quietly. But, by the time the bird is a year old; they have formed their adult songs and are no longer capable of learning any new notes to add to their repertoire.
Song sparrows are abundant in the area and can be observed by hiking in almost any local park. Good places to see them are on the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail, Ellis Creek Recycling Facility, and Annadel-Trione State Park.