For the Birds: Presidents' Day bird - Lincoln's Sparrow

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lincoln's Sparrow on alert
Photo by Blair Bernson
By Christine Southwick

Never heard of a Lincoln’s Sparrow?

Perhaps that is because most Lincoln’s Sparrows only pass through our neighborhoods on their migration routes to and from their preferred shrubby and marshy fields, preferably located 3,000 feet and above. Since these anti-flocking sparrows are often found walking or hopping in tall grass and thick brush in damp areas searching for their food, they are not as visible as some other species.

They usually forage singly or with another or two Lincoln’s Sparrow , but during winter migration they may join other species of sparrows. They most certainly stop in damp grassy or brushy areas around here, but many people misidentify them as a variant of our local Song Sparrows.

A Lincoln’s Sparrow looks to me, a first glance, like a smallish Song Sparrow with gray instead of brown overtones, buffier breast and darker stripes than our better known dark Song Sparrows, plus a buffy eye-ring. I usually notice the buffier breast first, then I start looking more closely.

Lincoln's Sparrow using blackberries
Photo by Scott Ramos

Lincoln’s Sparrows eat spiders, beetles, larvae, leafhoppers, flies, etc. They add small seeds to their diet in the wintertime. They only occasionally visit feeders, most often suet.

Some Lincoln’s Sparrows have started wintering here rather than migrating to neo-tropical areas. Lincoln’s Sparrows are spotted every winter in Magnuson Park where parts of the park satisfy their needs. This is another species that uses blackberry brambles for winter shelter and feeding.

These birds require edges of wetlands for breeding. The female prefers building her well-concealed ground nest in boggy sites within short willow or birch shrubs, the denser the better. Since even hidden nests have a high danger quotient, the 3-5 newly hatched young leave the nest in 10-11 days, about a week before they can fly. This is a common survival tactic for ground-nesting birds, with the parents feeding these young for about three to four weeks after they leave the nest.

Lincoln's Sparrow
Photo by Blair Bernson

Conservation of their sub-alpine wetland breeding habitat, and also their wintering areas is of vital importance for their continued populations. And because these habitats are not deemed valuable by most people, many Lincoln’s Sparrows have been affected by herbicide application.

Males attract mates and defend their territory with a loud cheery jumble of notes, very different than Song Sparrows, perhaps the best clue, but usually not in the wintertime.


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