The Wood Folk Diaries: Volume 2, Chapter 11: Meet the Song Sparrow and Friends

Dear Wood Folk,

The song sparrow (melospiza melodia) is the sparrow I most often spot and especially hear around Haliburton. But I’ve seen 8 species of sparrows, listed here in order of my own frequency: our feature song sparrow, white-throated (zonotrichia albicollis), chipping (spizella passerina), dark-eyed junco (junco hyemalis), fox sparrow (passerella iliaca), American tree (spizelloides arborea) whom I’ve confused with redpolls before, white-crowned (zonotrichia leucophrys), and swamp (melospiza georgiana) who has yet to pose for a decent picture. Same order in our Instagram:

People on iNat have also rarely spotted a Lincoln’s (melospiza lincolnii) and a field sparrow (spizella pusilla). And one person spotted a savannah (passerculus sandwichensis).. Sandwich.. ensis? Hmmm. (I’ll save you a Google. It’s named after an Earl of Sandwich!) You can see these three here on iNat.

Eventually all the above will have a Wood Folk Diary. But today is for the very vocal song sparrows among us. On top of a regular song sparrow, I may have seen the eastern subspecies as well. There are lots of song sparrows in the world, maybe 30 subspecies. The  central breast spot is the giveaway I look for:

Song sparrows populate the whole of North America. And in winter the northern population migrates to the southern US and Mexico.

Song Sparrow Plant Allies

The song sparrow isn’t too fussy about habitat, which may be why it’s the most common sparrow in North America. It gets called a “habitat generalist” due to its non-particular-ness. I see them most in open woodlands and along marshes and lake edges. In autumn, you may find flocks of juveniles darting around near water sources.

These birds sing year-round and it’d be hard to not hear one along any given marsh or lake from Spring-Autumn. They also respond to pishing, yes, you can call them like you’re Radagast or some such wizard.

Their nests are a thick cup hidden in dense cover near or on the ground. The female makes it out of of strips of bark, grass stems and other plant material. She lines her nest with fine grasses, hair and rootlets. I often see them flying out of clumps of grass along the main marsh I visit, and there’s no way I can make out the nest there. Mom may build in your thick cedar hedge instead, or your prickly rose bushes.

In warm months they eat mostly insects, but in autumn and winter their diet flips to more seeds and fruits. They tend to feed on or low to the ground. Some of our fruits they love include apples, blackberries, black cherries, blueberries, Canada plum, chokecherries, raspberries, strawberries and wild grapes. Ragweed, an herb we’re covering this month, has seeds they love. Clover, sunflower, many a grass or herb seed suit them. They also nibble on many buds, flowers, and some nuts. They may even raid your vegetable garden. Speak of gardening, the lady’s thumb that can overtake your veggies produces tons of seeds for them. Even though it’s not native I let some grow to seed for them.

Attracting Song Sparrows

Weedy, brushy and scrubby dense low cover is best for sparrows in general, and even some warblers like mourning and common yellow-throats. I’ve had song sparrows in a brush pile left for the wild critters as cover. Native tall grasses and fruit bearing plants will help attract them too of course. They may nest in dense shrub on your property, but they won’t use birdhouses.

There’s a great graphic that shows a typical American lawn and has a robin plus, I think it was a white throated sparrow, as the birds that may visit a lawn that is just mowed grass. The other picture in the meme was a lawn with at least some dense native landscaping, and it had a long list of birds that could visit. If you’re on Facebook, consider joining Ontario Native Plant Gardening to get a jump on this.

For birds like song sparrows, who pluck on the ground, leaving leaf cover is also a good idea. Usually it’s recommended to help insects like pollinators. That’s another spring meme that goes around, you may have noticed on Facebook and similar platforms. Social media is good for something eh.

They will come to your bird feeders if there’s safe cover nearby. Scatter sunflower seeds on the ground or use a platform feeder. They’ll also go for cracked corn and millet. Make sure to discourage feral cats; ground feeding birds are especially vulnerable and it’s estimated cats kill 100,000,000 to 350,000,000 birds per year in Canada, and billions worldwide. We have a few groups around like Minden Cat Angels who rescue and find homes for these cats, and I’m not sure if they think about it, but they’re saving birds too.

Any water sources including birdbaths, especially with moving water, are features they tend to look for too.

It’s not hard to attract or find a song sparrow. And IDing them comes easily with practice. With a lot of familiarity you can learn to tell all our sparrows apart. Next months birds are a bit harder to differentiate though.. flycatchers. I can’t make any promises. We’ll try. Hope to see you then!

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