Friday, January 2, 2015

First Bird of the Year 2015

Some New Year's Day I may fling open the curtains to find a crested oropendola, a hyacinth visorbearer, or some other spectacularly unlikely bird at the feeder to claim as my first bird of the year. But I'm not holding my breath. I wasn't at all surprised to be greeted by one of North America's most common and widespread birds: the plain-Jane-simple-name Song Sparrow.

The song sparrow is one of the many little birds in the group known as LBJs ("little brown jobs"--a.k.a. LBBs, "little brown birds"). It is found throughout much of North America.

"Common and widespread," states the Kaufman field guide about this species. "Common and widespread," agrees the Sibley guide. "Probably the most widespread sparrow," adds the National Geographic guide, nodding eagerly.

But looks can be deceiving, because this ubiquitous little brown bird actually varies widely in coloration across its range.

Photo courtesy BLM (song sparrow, Alaska)
Song sparrows in the desert southwest, for example, are pale reddish yellow birds, while song sparrows in Alaska's Aleutian Islands wear dark feathers and are a third bigger than their cousins in the eastern United States. There are reddish brown song sparrows in some places, birds with slate-gray backs in others.

This variation is so bewildering that the Peterson field guide waves its hands wildly and warns with a note of panic, "Do not attempt to untangle various migrants in the field."

(Don't worry, though, if you have recklessly attempted to untangle various migrants in the field. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's song-sparrow profile reassuringly advises, "Don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences this bird shows across North America deter you: it’s one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area.")

Photo from Wiki Commons
Song sparrows are a cinch to identify in the garden right outside your kitchen window, though.

Here in Washington State, song sparrows are chunky, dark-feathered birds with boldly streaked breasts that bear a characteristic central spot. They're just as much at home in a well-planted garden as they are in their natural habitat of low, thick brush; a 1968 Seattle Audubon Society publication calls this species "the 'small brown sparrow' of backyards, brushy areas, and semi-open woods."

In winter, our yard's song sparrows often show up two at a time. They usually hop about under the feeder, eating seeds spilled by the enthusiastic finches and chickadees clinging to the feeder's wire mesh. There on the ground, they keep company with several spotted towhees, a varied thrush, and an occasional fox sparrow.

Come spring, we'll hardly see them at all, partly because we've shut down the feeder  but also because song sparrows are busily courting, defending territory, building nests, and feeding hatchlings. But we will hear them caroling from dawn to dusk as they prove they're not called "song" sparrows for nothing.

For this plain little brown bird is a vigorous and lovely singer. One of its regional common names is "silver-tongue." Even its scientific name honors its ability: Melospiza melodia means "Song-finch song."

Photo from Wiki Commons
I used to hear song sparrows trilling in the birches of my childhood Long Island, New York, suburban home. So many sparrows sang that they sounded as if they were doing a call and response routine. It was a joy to hear their familiar melody welcome springtime when I left  New York and moved to Seattle 25 years ago.

A song sparrow's song isn't the complex river of sound that flows from the minute Pacific wren, or the ethereal cry that spirals from a veery or Swainson's thrush--it's more of a confident, burbling, cheerful, chatty sort of tune.

First the little bird pipes three times, as if warming up or calling its listeners to attention. Then it trills loudly before descending into a quickly uttered series of chirps and ringings.

As a kid I always thought it sounded as if the sparrow were contentedly talking to itself after it had emitted the pipes and trills.

Ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873–1928) called the song sparrow "the poet of common day" and described its melody as being "like sunshine, bountiful and free and ever grateful." He transcribed the sound as peace, peace, peace be unto you, my children.

Of the song sparrow's song, Audubon wrote:
"I have at all times been very partial  to the
Song Sparrow; for although its attire is
exceedingly plain, it is pleasing, to hear it,
in the Middle States, singing, earlier in
spring, and later in autumn, than almost
any other bird. Its song is sweet,
of considerable duration, and performed
at all hours of the day."
A more common mnemonic device for identifying the aria of a song sparrow hidden among leaves and brush is Madge, Madge, Madge, put on your tea kettle, kettle, kettle or Maids! Maids! Maids! Hang up your teakettle-ettle-ettle!

The Audubon Society's massive Encyclopedia of North American Birds adds that the "first three notes [are] often popularly compared with first three notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony."

The male repeats this song frequently, as often as eight times per minute, and though he sounds jaunty there's serious stuff at stake: he's defending his territory and also seeking to attract a mate.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's profile of the song sparrow, "Laboratory studies have shown that the female Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn. Males that used more learned components in their songs and that better matched their song tutors (the adult bird they learned their songs from) were preferred."

Fortunately, human listeners don't have to be so picky. We can simply enjoy the glad tidings of spring from a little brown bird, common and widespread, that is known in some parts as "everybody's darling."