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VIII

THE FIELD SPARROW AND THE CHIPPER

ALL beginners in bird study find the sparrow family a hard one. There are so many kinds of sparrows, and the different kinds look so confusingly alike. How shall I ever be able to tell them apart? the novice says to himself.

Well, there is no royal road to such learning, it may as well be confessed. But there is a road, for all that, and a pretty good one, — the road of patience; and there is much pleasure to be had in following it. If you know one sparrow, be it only the so-called “English,” you have made a beginning.

If you know the English sparrow, I say; for, strange as it may seem, I find numbers of people who do not. Take the average inhabitant of any of our large cities into the country, and let him come upon an English sparrow in a way side hedge, and there are three chances to one that he will not know with certainty what to call it. Quite as likely as not he has never noticed that there are two kinds of English sparrows, very differently feathered — the male and the female.

In a short chapter like this I am not going to attempt a miracle. If you read it to the end, never so carefully, you will not be prepared to name all the sparrows at sight. As I said be fore, they are a hard set. My wish now is to speak of two of the smallest and commonest.

One of these is called sometimes the chipping sparrow, sometimes the chipper, and sometimes — much less often — the doorstep sparrow. Personally, I like the last name best, — perhaps be cause I invented it. Scientific men, who prefer for excellent reasons to have their own names for things, call him Spizella socialis — that is to say, the familiar or social little spiza, or sparrow. The idea of littleness, some young readers may not know, is contained in the termination ella, which is what grammarians call a diminutive. Umbrella, for instance, is literally a small umbra, or shade.

With most readers of this book the chipping sparrow is a bird of spring, summer, and autumn. For the winter he retires to our extreme Southern States and to Mexico. If you live in Massachusetts, you may begin to be on the watch for him by the 5th of April. If your home is farther south, you should see him somewhat earlier.

Perhaps you will know him by this brief description: a very small, slender sparrow, with a dark chestnut-red crown, a black forehead, a black bill, and plain — unstreaked and unspotted — under parts.

His ordinary note, or call, is a chip (whence his name), and his song is a very dry, tuneless, monotonous, long-drawn chippy-chippy-chippy, uttered so fast as to sound almost like a trill. You may like the bird never so well, but if you have any idea of music, you will never call him a fine singer. What he and his mate think about the matter there is, of course, no telling. He seems to be very much in earnest, at all events.

He is a social bird, I say. You will not have to go far afield or into the woods in search of him. If you live in any sort of country place, with a bit of garden and a few shrubs and fruit trees, a pair of chippers will be likely to find you out. Their nest will be built in a tree or bush, a small structure neatly lined with hair, and in due time it will contain four or five eggs, blue or greenish blue, with brown spots.

Our other bird is of the chipper’s size, and, like him, has unstreaked and unspotted lower parts. His bill is of a light color, “reddish brown,” one book says, “pale reddish,” says an other. This is one of the principal marks for the beginner to notice. Another is a wash of buff, or yellowish brown, on the sides of the breast. The upper parts, too, are in general much lighter than the chipper’s.

You will not be likely often to find this bird in your garden or about the lawn. He is called the field sparrow, but he lives mostly in dry old pastures, partly overgrown with bushes and trees. His nest is placed on the ground, or in a low bush, and is often lined wholly or in part with hair. He and the chipper belong to what is called the same genus. That is to say, the two are so nearly related that they have the same surname. The chipper is Spizella socialis, the field sparrow is Spizella pusilla; just as two brothers will have one name in common, say, Jones, William, and Jones, Andrew.

The chipper is a favorite on account of his familiar, friendly ways. The field sparrow de serves to be known and loved for his music. Few birds sing better, in my opinion, though many make more display and are more talked about. The beauty of the song is in its sweet ness, simplicity, and perfect taste. It begins with three or four longer notes, which run at once into quicker and shorter ones, either on the same pitch or a little higher. Really the strain is almost too simple to make a description of: a simple line of pure melody, one may say. You must hear it for yourself. Sometimes the bird gives it out double, so to speak, catching it up again just as he seems ready to finish. The tone is the clearest of whistles, and the whole effect is most delightful and soothing. It is worth any body’s while to spend a season or two in bird study, if only to learn this and half a dozen more pieces of our common wild-bird music.

The field sparrow’s times of arrival and departure are practically the same as the chipper’s. Neither bird is hard to see, or very hard to distinguish; a bit of patience and an opera-glass will do the business; though you may have to puzzle awhile over either of them before making quite sure of your knowledge. In bird study, as in any other, we learn by correcting our own mistakes.


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