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Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Optimistic Sparrow

The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another. The difference between  them is sometimes as great as a month. 
--  Henry VanDyke, 1899, in Fisherman's Luck.
On Saturday morning, officially the fifth day of spring, I was walking by the East River in Brooklyn Bridge Park wearing earmuffs, scarf, and gloves again, and I was freezing! The temperature was 32F, the wind from the bay was bitter, and the muskrat's pond was covered by a thin plate of ice.

A song sparrow perched conspicuously in a bare tree with his feathers puffed up against the cold. The wind ruffled his feathers but did not deter him. He was clearly ready for spring. For as long as I could stand the cold and watch, he looked around, threw his head back, opened his beak, and sang. Then he did it again. And again. Repeatedly announcing his claim on the territory and advertising his readiness to pair up with a nice lady sparrow.

The song sparrow, Melospiza melodia. 


The song started with three distinct notes and ended in a complex series of warbles and trills. They don't call these birds song sparrows for nothing; each has a repertoire of up to 20 different tunes and they improvise variations. They usually sing one a few times and then another. And they have dialects. Their songs vary over the song sparrow's wide geographic range, which includes most of North America. You may hear one sing a new song if you travel far from home.

Here are some of the birdwatcher mnemonics that have been made up to help identification by mimicking the cadence and syllable count of song sparrow songs:

Maids! Maids! Maids! Put on your tea kettle-ettle-ettle
Hip. Hip. Hip hurrah boys. Spring is here!
Madge. Madge. Madge. Pick beetles off -- the water's hot. 
Click here to listen to a song sparrow singing. 

Song sparrows are about 6 inches long,  streaked with dark brown, white underneath, with a brown stripe through the eye, and a brown cap with a pale stripe down the middle. They have a dark brown spot in the center of the breast.  The tail is rounded and relatively long as sparrow tails go. Males and females look alike. Song sparrow color varies a lot and can be anywhere from sandy pale to chocolaty brown. Thy eat seeds and fruits, supplemented with insects in season; they are often seen on the ground scratching leaves aside to turn up tasty treats.

They are found in almost any kind of habitat: pine forests, desert scrub, coastal marsh, suburban bird feeders, cities and roadsides. They are present year round in much of the United States, but many migrate south in the winter and north again to breed in Canada in summer.

And they seem able to find an exposed branch in any vacant lot in between from which to declare the imminence of spring.


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