Birding Column: Getting In Tune With Song Sparrows

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Song Sparrow Variations

The song sparrow has 31 recognized subspecies, and as such, it is one of the most geographically varied in appearance of all terrestrial vertebrates in North America. Since these variations occur gradually over the bird's range, song sparrows in regions that are close to each other will look more alike than song sparrows that inhabit regions that are farther apart.

For instance, song sparrows here in Bel Air have highly visible, dark streaking on the white underparts and long, white streaks on the sides of the crown and chin. By contrast, song sparrows of the Pacific Northwest have a darker plumage in general, and lack the white streaking of my local subspecies.

Meanwihle, song sparrows in Alaska are larger than song sparrows in other regions, and their plumage is grayish with brownish streaks; and song sparrows in the East are medium-size and brownish, with shorter and thicker bills than many of the song sparrows in the West.

What do most song sparrows have in common? A dark central spot on the breast, where the streaks merge; a pumping of the tail during flight; a preference for open, bushy habitats, often near water; and, of course, their melodious song!

Mathew Tekulsky writes a regular column about birding in his backyard and neighborhood in Bel Air, California. You can follow his encounters with the birds of the Santa Monica Mountains here on National Geographic News Bird Watcher every fortnight or so.

Previous columns by the Birdman of Bel Air
New Bird-Watching Column: "The Birdman of Bel Air"
The California Towhee, Boldly Bland
At Home With Hooded Orioles
Scrub Jays Go Nuts for Peanuts
Northern Mockingbird is a Wary Neighbor
Christmas With the Pelicans
California-Quail Close Encounter
Yosemite Steller's Jay Encounter
Banding Birds at Devils Postpile
California Condor Close Encounter
California Condor Rebound
Going Nuts With Wilderness Ravens
Hummingbird Chicks Fly the Nest
Mexican Jays' Dogged Pack Mentality

National Geographic BirdWatcher
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