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VII

THE SONG SPARROW


SONG SPARROW
1. Male      2. Female

SPARROWS are of many kinds, and in a general way the different kinds look so much alike that the beginner in bird study is apt to find them confusing, if not discouraging. They will try his patience, no matter how sharp and clever he may think himself, and unless he is much cleverer than the common run of humanity, he will make a good many mistakes before he gets to the end of them.

One of the best and commonest of them all is the song sparrow. His upper parts are mottled, of course, since he is a sparrow. His light-colored breast is sharply streaked, and in the middle of it the streaks usually run together and form a blotch. His outer tail-feathers are not white, and there is no yellow on the wings or about the head. These last points are mentioned in order to distinguish him from two other spar rows with streaked breasts — the vesper sparrow and the savanna.

By the middle of March song sparrows reach New England in crowds, — along with robins and red-winged blackbirds, — and are to be heard singing on all hands, especially in the neighborhood of water. They remain until late autumn, and here and there one will be found even in midwinter.

The song, for which this sparrow is particularly distinguished, is a bright and lively strain, nothing very great in itself, perhaps, but thrice welcome for being heard so early in the season, when the ear is hungry after the long winter silence. Its chief distinction, however, is its amazing variety. Not only do no two birds sing precisely alike, but the same bird sings many tunes.

Of this latter fact, which I have known some excellent people to be skeptical about, you can readily satisfy yourself, — and there is nothing like knowing a thing at first hand, — if you will take the pains to keep a singer under your eye at the height of the musical season. You will find that he repeats one strain for perhaps a dozen times, without the change of a note; then suddenly he comes out with a song entirely different. This second song he will in turn drop for a third, and so on. The bird acts, for all the world, as if he were singing hymns, of so many verses each, one after another.

It is really a wonderful performance. There are very few kinds of birds that do anything like it. Of itself it is enough to make the song spar row famous, and it is well worth any one’s while to hear it and see it done. Nobody can see it without believing that birds have a true appreciation of music. They are better off than some human beings, at all events. They know one tune from another.

A lady correspondent was good enough to send me, not long ago, a pleasing account of the doings of a pair of song sparrows, which, as she says, came to her for six seasons.

“One year,” she writes, “they happened to build where I could watch them from the window, and they did a very curious thing. They fed the little birds with all sorts of worms of different colors until they were ready to leave the nest; then the male brought a pure white moth and held it near the nest, which was in some stems of a rosebush a few inches from the ground, on a level with the lower rail of a picket fence.

“One of the little birds came out of the nest at once and followed its parent, who went side wise, always holding the dazzling white morsel just out of the youngster’s reach. In this manner they crossed the lane, climbed the inclined plane of a woodpile, and passed through a fence and across a vegetable garden into an asparagus bed, in which miniature forest the little traveler received and ate the moth.

“Another nest was built on the bank of a brook on the farther side of a road. Out of this nest I saw two little fellows coaxed with these snow-white moths, and led across the dusty road into a hedge.”

One or two experiences of this kind are sufficient reward for a good deal of patient observation. The singer of this pair of birds, my correspondent says, had ten distinct songs, one of them exceedingly beautiful and peculiar.

The song sparrow’s nest is usually built on the ground, and the bird is one of several kinds that are known indiscriminately by country people as ground sparrows.

Song sparrows seem to be of a pretty nervous disposition, to judge from their behavior. One of their noticeable characteristics is a twitching, up-and-down, “pumping” motion of the tail, as they dash into cover on being disturbed.

People who live in the Southern States see these birds only in the cooler part of the year, but must have abundant opportunity to hear them sing as spring approaches.


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