North America’s archetypal “little brown job” the almost omnipresent Song Sparrow occupies much the same birding-niche in the Nearctic as the Dunnock does in the UK: if you’re birding here in the UK and a bird is seen only briefly or poorly as it disappears into vegetation and it ‘just has to be a rarity‘, it will in fact always be a Dunnock. If you’re in North America that same “rarity” will always be a Song Sparrow. It’s an immutable law, and there’s no point complaining because that’s just how things are!
To say that the Song Sparrow ‘is an extremely common, widespread, and geographically variable bird’ (www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/SONSPA/) really doesn’t quite tell the whole story. They are everywhere and in every habitat – appearing in dense woodland, popping out of bushes along waterways, hurtling across roads and highways with suicidal disregard for traffic, or giving their buzzy songs from the end of a twig in parks and gardens. No two birds look alike either: within the same small park or stretch of woodland a Song Sparrow can easily appear more or less streaked and/or paler or darker than the Song Sparrows foraging on the ground right next to them.
Looking at the continent as a whole, the picture gets even more confusing. Not only do no two birds from the same Song Sparrow brood seem to look alike, Song Sparrows turn out to be a huge clan of very-closely related individuals that have spent the last few thousand years forming subtly different groupings all across North America: yes, they’re all – according to current thinking – Song Sparrows, but looking at the photos below you wouldn’t be the only birder around to wonder if the taxonomists have got it right…
There are in fact 31 recognized subspecies or races of Song Sparrow in North America [and 39 in total when Mexico is included], the most of any North American species. If that sounds a little daunting, it’s worth remembering that many of the differences between the subspecies are fairly slight (particularly in eastern North America), and if you happen to be on your travels and find an “odd” Song Sparrow concentrate instead on the similarities with the birds that you’re familiar with or have seen before.
So what are the similarities? All Song Sparrows share a long, rounded tail – which is often held upright or pumped giving them a distinctive jizz. They all also have relatively short, rounded wings; a grayish or white supercilium; a pale central crown stripe; and a conspicuous, broad, dark malar stripe separating the white moustachial stripe from the white chin and throat. The base color of the back varies, but it is always streaked with darker rufous brown or dark brown.
Looking at them geographically:
- Eastern birds are gray brown on the back with dark streaks, rufous brown wings and tail, lateral crown stripes, and a well-developed central spot.
- Moving west, the races become progressively darker, with dark rufous to blackish streaking, except in the Southwest, where some races are extremely pale with a pale rufous back color and light streaking on the breast.
- The races that occur along the West Coast become progressively larger, bigger billed, and grayer, reaching a peak with the very large Aleutian birds.
So is there a secret to identifying Song Sparrows? Well, they do have that distinctive jizz, but learning the bird’s call is also very important: all Song Sparrows give more or less the same call wherever they are and whatever they are doing – a flat, hollow-sounding and diagnostic “chimp” that once learnt will help sort out the trickier individuals. But, how do you get them to call? Song Sparrows (in my experience anyway) are curious and inquisitive and are very easily “pished”: on very many occasions I’ve stood in good birding habitat puzzling over what species it is in the undergrowth in front of me, “pished” and then found myself being scrutinised by calling Song Sparrows.
It may not sound very scientific (and of course isn’t something to be done when birds are breeding and shouldn’t be disturbed) but few American sparrows seem respond to ‘pishing’ quite so readily as Song Sparrows and once attracted they will often perch in the open long enough for the plumage identification features to be checked. Try it and see for yourself…
Song Sparrows Melospiza melodia
Newark, New York, Chicago, Vanvouver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Mexico City
Central Park, New York, April 2006
Central Park, New York, March 2004
Central Park, New York, April 2007
Great Swamp Refuge, Newark, March 2006
Montrose Point, Chicago, April 2005
Starved Rock State Park, Illinois, March 2006
Stanley Park, Vancouver, May 2006
Seward Park, Seattle, March 2006
Newport Back Bay, Los Angeles, March 2005
Frank G Bonnelli County Park, Los Angeles, April 2006
Mexico City, June 2004
For comparison purposes, here’s a Swamp Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, ‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrow, and “Sooty” Fox Sparrow:
Swamp Sparrow, New York, April
Lincoln’s Sparrow, California, January
‘Belding’s’ Savannah Sparrow, California, April
‘Sooty’ Fox Sparrow, Vancouver, November
(Song Sparrows breed from the Aleutian Islands and southern Alaska across Canada north to Great Slave Lake and the southern Hudson Bay to the Maritime Provinces. The range extends south to northern Georgia and northeastern Alabama, across the northern Great Plains to the Pacific Coast. Below the Rocky Mountains, this sparrow’s range edges into Mexico and extends along the coast. The winter range includes almost the entire United States. Song Sparrows can be found as high as 9,000 feet, but they typically choose lower altitudes than the conspecific Lincoln’s Sparrow M. lincolnii. Where they occur in arid regions, they are confined to marshes, boggy fields, wet meadows, or streamside vegetation. Aleutian and coastal Alaskan subspecies are confined to sandy and scrubby beaches, and in the San Francisco Bay area, resident Song Sparrows frequent salt marshes. In other areas, typical Song Sparrow habitats include brushy areas along the shores of ponds or stream banks, shrubby moist meadows, cattail swamps, rocky woodland clearings, open second-growth woodlands, and gardens and yards in suburbs or small towns.
Populations are holding steady: they were considered abundant in Colonial times, and because they prefer brushy habitats seem to have benefited from the clearing of the dense forests that once covered much of North America.
Adapted from www.birds.cornell.edu/BOW/SONSPA/)
All photos copyright Charlie Moores