I have a problem remembering yesterday, yet I remember the first time coming to Cape May and America like it was yesterday and, yes, it was a long time ago. Bright, sunny, vibrant beaches and the sound of Laughing Gulls are the images that come up right away. There was one other image that is also symbolic of my first summer at the beach: The Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrows are common throughout most of North America. They breed here quite commonly and are happy being around humans; they are pretty much everywhere you go on your morning walk. It is also almost certainly the streaky sparrow in your garden in summer and still the most likely on migration. Back in the 80s I spent more time on the beach – it was cooler than my room at The Huntington House (now Hotel Alcott). Also, there were lots of non-feathered ‘birds’ (slang for women in England) on the beach.
You can often see Song Sparrows in the dunes sitting on the beach fences or bushes. They casually look around, in no hurry, just as you should be in Cape May. You can typically walk right up to them before they fly off, never going far.
They sound fun with a cheery range of up-and-down trills. Sitting on the highest perches, the male acts like the king of the castle, singing to ward off suitors to its lady and send other males packing from its territory. Research has shown that the females are attracted to not only the song but how many new components of the song are included that it learned from its mentor. In short, females like males that are open to learning from its teacher. Isn’t that amazing! I wonder if the male does it because it has a better chance of picking up a lady, or it genuinely wants to get better at singing. What do you think?
Like nearly all sparrows, they are brownish with brown-streaked white underparts. Like with all birds, focusing on the size, shape, and behavior (this includes their habitat) are the biggest keys to their identity. In summer there are almost no other sparrows that sit up on exposed perches like the Song Sparrow. Every now and then you might get a Field Sparrow, but they are small and pot-bellied with a long tail and pink bill.
Song Sparrows build small cup-shaped nests in bushes or sometimes in protected areas on the ground. Research has shown that the same nest is often used multiple years, even when the territory is deserted, and a new pair moves in. I wonder why they do this. Like many birds, they have one brood, sometimes a second one if the conditions are ideal or the first brood fails.
On migration, and in winter, other sparrows show up in the area in good numbers, so you have to be much more careful. When not singing and marking their territory, most sparrows tend to be sitting in bushes, grabbing seed heads or feeding on the ground. They form mixed flocks out of breeding season, creating an interesting identification challenge but also an opportunity to compare them at close quarters.
Today, we have a society that wants instant answers and gratification. Birding for me is not like that. The longer I look, the more I can get in the moment, the more enjoyable and rewarding it becomes. Being that voyeur of subtle behavior can be such fun. Watching how they all interact, the spacing between them, if they are territorial, how they feed and so on, can all be fascinating. Of course, it is not the answer that is important, it is the question. It is the ability to ask questions that creates the curiosity for discovery. Yes, I am still kid-like and always want to be.
Song Sparrows move quite slowly and methodically through vegetation or hop on the ground, tail often cocked. Songs are always one of the bigger and plumper sparrows with a fairly long, broad tail, rounded at the tip. They have broader and larger brown streaks than most sparrows and a central breast spot. The gray eyebrows and cheeks really stand out. The best way to learn them is to listen for them and watch their behavior in summer. When all the other sparrows arrive, you will know it well and it should stand out.
Me, I am going to be listening to the song and wondering how well he is doing impressing the lady with his learned phrases. In fact, I should have known this because every bird has its own distinguishable sound, just like humans. I am guessing we will find out most birds modify their songs to be different from one another like this. We know so little!