Birding Column: Getting In Tune With Song Sparrows

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
August 3, 2004

As its name implies, the song sparrow spends most of its day singing, and I imagine that it thinks that its song is the best song in the land.

It starts off with three or four high-pitched peeps in rather quick succession; then the bird launches into a raspy, guttural shriek; and then the bird whistles a few warbling notes as a coda. So when you put it all together, it goes something like this: "Peep, peep, peep—waaagh—whistle, whistle, whistle."

Try to top that. Well, I have tried to outsing the song sparrow, but I always lose. Usually, you hear the song sparrow before you see it. It may be out in the bushes, singing away, but it's hidden by all those branches.

So I'll launch into a whistling imitation of its song. This often entices it to poke its body out of the bushes and find a perch within full view of me. Who is trying to copy my song? it seems to be asking. I usually shut up then, knowing that I've been busted.

Now, the song sparrow is a very elusive creature, and it rarely lets you get closer than 25 or 30 feet (7 to 9 meters) away from it. It's so tiny that you hardly see it disappear into the shrubs at its first sight of you.

But one day in early February, I found a song sparrow along the side of the road leading into Sullivan Canyon, behind my house. This bird was so preoccupied with feasting on the ants and the algae-covered seeds and leaves that had been deposited in a muddy area of a stream that he allowed me to stand about 16 feet (5 meters) away from him for the better part of two hours.

On closer observation, I could see that there were many more ants crawling around in this muddy area than in areas of the stream where mud and leaves hadn't collected. I gathered that the song sparrow was eating plenty of ants during this session.

But when I looked through the 1000mm lens, I could see that the bird was picking up decaying leaves and other vegetable matter out of the mud. Now, song sparrows always live around water, but this particular downhill stream resulted from runoff from a narrow drainage pipe that was built into the hill at the side of the road. The runoff had left iron deposits that had turned the cement area a reddish-brown color.

Was the song sparrow gleaning food value from the algae in the mud, as well as from the oxidized deposits? I think so.

About two weeks after this encounter, I noticed that a song sparrow began frequenting my side yard. He made a habit out of hopping out of the bushes, just under the platform feeder. I always put out mixed birdseed on the ground here. The song sparrow availed himself of the food, especially focusing on the millet seeds.

In one photograph that I took of him here, you can clearly see the millet seed in his mouth, just before he swallows it. I would like to think that this was the same individual that I had photographed in the mud puddle in Sullivan Canyon, and that he had followed me home—but there is no way of telling.

So it is with watching birds.

Continued on Next Page >>


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