One group of birds that are often overlooked in favor of bigger and more colorful birds are the Sparrows. Here in Crane Lake we are blessed to be free of the exotic, or alien, European House Sparrow – one bird that I blame for casting a dark cloud on the whole of the Sparrow family. Some people refer to Sparrows as LBB’s or Little Brown Birds. Yes it is true that the subtle colors and less obvious variations in plumage make some Sparrows hard to identify.
One Sparrow that is abundant in our area, and in North America, is the Song Sparrow (by the way, that’s a great name!). The plumage of the Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, is characterized by a streaked breast and mantle, with the streaking on their breast forming a central breast-spot. The males and females look alike with the male being slightly larger than the female.
Song Sparrows occur coast to coast through out North America all the way north to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. There are 24 sub-species of the Song Sparrow and their sizes vary according to the region. Their size seems to coincide with climate – the Song Sparrows of the Aleutian Islands are the biggest while the Song Sparrows of southern California are the smallest. Song Sparrows nest either on the ground or very close to the ground in shrubs and small trees. They prefer lowlands, but they can also be seen amidst widely varying surroundings. On the Aleutian Islands they nest among the boulders on the beaches, in southern California they can be found in the grasslands that surround salt-marshes.
The Song Sparrow is one of the first birds to arrive back in the Crane Lake area in the Spring. Their cheerful song is welcome at that time of year as the first males of the season arrive back on their breeding territories in mid-April. Sometimes there is still snow on the ground as they make their way back to northern MN. Our Song Sparrows don’t go too far south in the winter – some may even overwinter in southern Minnesota. Most go to the southern states where they hang out in big mixed groups of Sparrows as they forage on the ground.
Around the lakes up here they prefer the shoreline – never will you find a Song Sparrow back in the dark, thick woods. Several years ago at my home on the lake, we set up a buffer zone and let our shoreline go natural as the DNR recommends. Beautiful wildflowers and different species of grasses have grown up. I was rewarded the very first year when a family of Song Sparrows built their nest and raised a family in the natural buffer zone.
Song Sparrows may have at least two broods per season. Right now during the summer doldrums, when many birds are quiet, they are one of the few birds that are still singing. Song Sparrows have a highly variable song between individual birds, but they always start out their song with 3 notes, after that the jumble of trills and phrases are varied. The mnemonic phrase that has been likened to their song is “maids, maids, maids, put on your tea kettle, lettle, lettle, lettle”.
Studies have shown that the male Song Sparrow starts singing 55-90 minutes before sunrise, the female starts singing 25 minutes before sunrise. The closer to the summer solstice the earlier they start singing. I can attest to that, especially when you are trying to sleep with the windows open. They make a good alarm clock.