For the Birds: The Ubiquitous Song Sparrow

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Song sparrow
Photo by Elaine Chuang

By Christine Southwick

If you have native plants, lots of shrubs, and/or a little Himalayan Blackberries in your yard, then you undoubtedly have Song Sparrows. 

Considered habitat generalists, about the only place you won’t find them is within forests.

Song Sparrows belong to the sparrow family. 

Because many sparrows look similar at first glance, they are often called “LBJs” (Little Brown Jobs). 

Song Sparrows are found throughout the US with 29 sub-species. In the Puget Sound area we have the dark form below 4,000 feet, with a smaller paler sub-species migrating here in the wintertime from interior British Columbia.

Photo by Elaine Chuang

Our Song Sparrows are large chunky dark sparrows, with a long tail that they pump while eating and while flying low from one shrub to the next cover. 

Their head is streaked with rich browns and light grays between, with a distinct eyeline running from the bill to the shoulders. 

The back and shoulders are streaked, and the breast usually has a dark center.

Song Sparrows are aptly named. They often sing all year long. 

Males sing to proclaim their territory and attract a mate. They learn their songs from listening to their neighbor birds, so birds in different regions have variations of the basic song sparrow song. Females may also occasionally sing.

Photo by Christine Southwick

Because they stay low to the ground eating insects and seeds, and while nesting, cats are their main predators, with hawks, owls, coyotes, and dogs also reducing their numbers.

Cowbirds will lay an egg in a Song Sparrow nest, resulting in most of the 3-5 Song Sparrow nestlings not surviving, since the Cowbird nestling is larger and more demanding than Song Sparrow nestlings.

Fortunately, Song Sparrows usually have two broods a year. 

Tailless juvenile
Photo by Christine Southwick

If you have a breeding pair that bring their young to your feeders and bird baths, you will be treated to the hilarious sight of juvenile Song Sparrows without tail feathers trying to fly, bottom heavy, from one shrub to the next. 

It gives the expression “low rider” a new relevancy.

Song Sparrows are often ignored much the same way as robins. 

Because they are so common here, people often say, “Oh, it’s a Song Sparrow”, and then they look for other birds.

Once you start watching and listening to our Song Sparrows you’ll realize that they are a real treasure, especially when a male is up on a branch singing with all his heart.


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