BIRD WATCH: Song sparrows make their presence known through sound


At least the one that came to bathe the other day was evidence of this.

When I happened to glance toward the bath, I could see that the bird was looking hard at the bath water.

It hopped along the edge, taking mini-sips, but all the time keeping an eye on the water’s surface.

The bath sits beneath a red plum tree that drops its leaves forever.

Sometime in December it should have shed them all.

One good-sized leaf was floating in the bath water and the sparrow acted as if it was offended by its presence.

As I watched, this fastidious bird hopped into the water, grabbed the leaf in its bill and gave it a good hard shake.

Then, without hesitation, it hopped to the edge of the bath and dropped the leaf over.

Now it could bathe.

Sparrows are interesting birds that often go unnoticed because of their plain appearance.

They’re “little brown birds” that disappear in the proper habitat — dark earth.

Only their hopping about catches the eye of most observers.

One exception to this not only alerts you to their presence, it demands that you notice them.

Their name is simple but perfect.

Song sparrows are loud and enthusiastic singers.

Their song is lovely.

It begins with a simple single note.

Actually, it uses three notes, one after the other as if the bird was clearing its vocal chords before starting to sing.

After the third note of introduction, the run that follows rarely fails to lift your spirits.

It’s hard to describe, but once the introductory notes ring out, you know what is coming next.

A variety of melodic trills run up and down the scales and end on a high note that demands applause.

Many writers or birdwatchers have attempted to put this song into words.

It isn’t possible.

I like Peterson’s attempt: “song, a variable series of notes, some musical, some buzzy; usually starts with three or four bright repetitious notes, sweet, sweet, sweet, etc.”

Song sparrows are resident birds found from as far north as the Aleutian Islands to as far south as Central Mexico.

Throughout North America, the many races vary in size and color according to the habitat they frequent.

For example, the most northern races (including ours) are the largest and the darkest forms found.

In the western part of the country, there are almost 30 different races.

The song sparrows seen in the Northwest look very different from those found on the East Coast.

The same is true for birds seen in the desert.

They are smaller and have very pale plumage.

Disposition-wise, song sparrows are argumentative, even among themselves.

Male and female birds look identical.

During the breeding season, this can create a problem for courting males.

An attempt to approach a possible mate might end up with a bit of a dustup with an offended other male.

However, if the bird assumes the begging, submissive act like that of a juvenile, or turns tail and runs, the bird is a female.

Then the courting male has a good chance of finding his mate.

This interesting bird with the big voice isn’t difficult to attract to our yards.

Song sparrows are seen in a variety of habitats that include thickets, brush, marshes, roadsides and gardens.

They will be among the first of our resident birds to begin their spring mating song.

Even during fall and winter, bright sunshine encourages song sparrows to sing.

I expect to enjoy the fastidious in the bird bath even as the months roll by.


Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email:

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