Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia

By Yodit Machai

Song Sparrows have a round body with short wings and a long tail. Their body and tail length is 5-61/2". Their feet and legs are slightly heavy. Song Sparrows have feathers of chestnut brown, streaked with darker brown, and breasts of cream color with heavy spot on the throat. Sparrows usually pump their tails in flight and are often seen singing from the tops of bushes. Song Sparrows live in habitats such as meadows, gardens, and roadsides, often near water. They range throughout most of North America, including in marshes along San Francisco Bay, backyard currant bushes in New England, and among the rocks and grass along the shore of the Aleutian Islands. They mostly live in the eastern part of North America. They feed on seeds, insects, insect larvae, and berries. Their feeder food is mixed seeds. Sparrows are quick and shy so there won’t be many around a feeder. But the ones who do come will consider it part of their territory and defend it from other birds. Their nests are built on the ground or less than four meters above ground, made of grass and weeds, with a fine lining.

A young bird typically lays four sets of four eggs each in a nesting season, and adult birds may do likewise. But more often they lay two sets of five eggs and two sets of three eggs and, in both cases totaling 16 eggs. The weight of a set is approximately half the weight of the bird that laid it. Song Sparrow eggs differ markedly in appearance from one bird to another. The eggs can be greenish, grayish, pinkish, or bluish. When a nest is destroyed, the first egg of the next set is laid five days after the loss, no matter whether the eggs of the previous set had just been laid, were half incubated, or were ready to hatch, or whether there were young in the nest. The female alone performs incubation, but the male guards the territory and calls his mate off the nest.

Female Song Sparrows sing only during nesting season. The song is short, multipart and musical. The male Song Sparrows’ awakening song is given about half an hour before sunrise, and is given throughout the nesting season except after the male has been joined by a mate and before nesting begins. In many cases both sexes have elaborate songs that are often given in courtship or to sustain the pair bond or flocks.

Their voice is variable, ranging from musical to buzzy, beginning with a repeated sweet sweet sweet and sweet sweet towhee tritritritri. The vocal utterances of the Song Sparrow during the first month of its life may be divided into six classes: food notes, location notes, fear notes, threat notes, self-assertion notes, and song. Food notes, see-see and tit-tit-tit, are used when the Sparrow is hungry and as long as the bird depends on its parents. The location notes or calls, tsip, are of a young bird that has just left the nest and is also a hunger note used until independence. Fear notes of the adult are tik-tik. The threat note is a note of hostility. The self-assertion note is usually heard from a male on his territory. It often expresses anxiety in the nesting season or protest against an intruder. In the song class many young birds start to sing at a very early age.

Once when I was driving thorough a farm village, I saw a sparrow land upon the shoulder of a man who was hoeing in a garden. I thought how special and distinguished the man must feel and how I would have felt if it had happened to me.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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