Defense by Vocal Chord Makes a Happy-Sounding Yard

Defense by Vocal Chord Makes a Happy-Sounding Yard

Don't mess with my nest, Bro'. 

This guy gives me the eye everyday.

Most evenings we take a stroll around the property and get viewed with a great deal of suspicion. Sometimes we are viewed with a great deal of incrimination by our birds--its possible the bird feeders are empty--but that's another story. In THIS story, we are talking about one of my absolute favorite birds, and the reason why is all in the name.

Melospiza melodia is the Latin name for the Song Sparrow. Just let the latin roll off your tongue a couple of times. It almost sings itself! We have a nesting pair that stays with us all year long and has successfully raised quite a number of chicks. They typically nest in the hedge border on the east side of our property, which puts them one house lot off a very busy (by Brevard, NC standards) street. This border is a combination of whacked-back leyland cypress planted by our neighbors, Diervilla sessilifolia (Southern bush honeysuckle), an American Holly tree and Physocarpus opulifolius (Ninebark Diablo). The leyland cypress (there are three in a row) is the current dominant evergreen, so that is where they have nested for the last few years. The holly, however, is finally taking hold and may become a "preferred" site. It will be interesting to observe what they choose.

A nice little clutch of eggs at the nursery.

Song Sparrow eggs can vary a bit in hue. In this image, taken at our favorite local nursery , you can see what looks like a pale blue-green egg with brown splotches, which is typical. Eggs can also have splotches that are more lavender in color, and the base color can be a more clear blue on through to a gray-green. The nest itself also demonstrates a typical song sparrow feature--the looser, stick-built outer structure lined with a softer bed of pine needles or grasses.

Like our sparrows, the sparrows who visit Hope at the nursery nest in her plants every year. Sometimes they make use of the trees that are part of the landscaping, but sometimes mom sets up housekeeping right in the middle of the perennials. At these times, you'll see the caution tape cordoning off an area to both warn and inform the nursery's customers that Oo! There are babies! and Sorry, no, you can't buy this particular perennial, right now!

Song sparrows apparently have very specific ideas about great nesting sites, and scientists have observed particularly spots being recreated time after time--even when a new pair of adults moves into an area.

See those mutton chops? Click to enlarge the photo.

The features my increasingly-feeble eyes use to distinguish song sparrows from other sparrows (after all, lots of them tend to have chunky, splotchy little bodies) are the brown cap (but not as rusty as the smaller chipping sparrow) the centrally-located dominant splotchy spot on the breast (see the first photo for a clear example), and the dark "mutton chops" descending from the beak towards the shoulders. The mutton chops are referred to as a "thick, dark malar" (moustache) by the pros. Song sparrows are, however, regionally quite variable, with 24 recognized subspecies. So sometimes, you may have to use a little process of elimination to clearly identify Who You've Got. In the Pacific Northwest, that big blotch on the chest may not even be there, for instance. Some grey can also be mixed in with the browner streaks on the back and wings, but you will find no yellow on a song sparrow and its brown is not a really rusty-red brown as you would find on a Fox sparrow. Song sparrows where YOU live may be quite a bit different from mine--be sure to check the link under sources for lots more description about regional variations. While "my" birds have fairly dark streaks and blotches, yours could be a good bit more pale!

So refreshing on a hot summer day!

Song sparrows are primarily insectivores and ground foragers. Ours spend large chunks of time hopping about the grasses and perennials eating things we can barely see. They particularly like hanging out in our "meadow," which is not a super airy, sunny spot, but is lushly planted with switchgrass, milkweed, coneflower, monarda, blazing star and joe pye weed--all typical meadow plants. They weave in and out of the plants--I have yet to get a decent photograph of them at this, but it's fun to watch.

Since song sparrows eat bugs, you have to make sure your yard HAS some, if you want this species to spend time in your space. A light covering of mulch between your plants will keep weeds down and provide hiding places and lunch for insects. Adding a branch or log here and there will also give those bugs a place to hang out--at least until they get devoured. During nesting or winter, our sparrows have occasionally made use of a good suet. A source of water will be welcome, as well--they use our bird baths regularly. You can see a female making use of one here in the picture above.

This particular song sparrow is sitting in a Winter King Hawthorne, which we first observed at the North Carolina Arboretum. It is a suburban-appropriate tree in that it is not too large, blooms profusely, sets fruit for fall and winter consumption (hence the "winter king") and does not sucker as prolifically as the rootstock does. The tree is Green Hawthorne grafted to Washington Hawthorne rootstock, and is deserving of space if you have it. Our sparrows use this one as a lookout spot and also for the evening serenade, which you can see he is giving at the moment of the photo.

As I'm sure you are aware, most songbird songs are either about defending the home territory by letting other males know that This Spot Is Taken, or they are singing to attract a mate with which to share that home territory. Females don't like dumb males--and they gauge this in part by the male's ability to learn new tunes! Our fellow is quite accomplished in this regard, much to my daily delight. Sometimes...I don't even know it is him!


All About Birds

In the Belly of the Clouds

In the Belly of the Clouds

Life Hacks for Pollinators

Life Hacks for Pollinators