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IX

SOME APRIL SPARROWS

FOR the first three weeks of April the ornithologist goes comparatively seldom into the woods. Millions of birds have come up from the South, but the forest is still almost deserted. May, with its hosts of warblers, will bring a grand change in this respect; meanwhile the sparrows are in the ascendant, and we shall do well to follow the road for the most part, though with frequent excursions across fields and into gardens and or chards. Of eighty-four species of birds seen by me in April, a year ago, twenty-one were water birds, and of the remaining sixty-three, twenty, or almost one third, were members of the spar row family, while only five were warblers. In May, on the other hand, out of one hundred and twenty-five species seen twenty-three were warblers, and only eighteen were sparrows. To re present the case fairly, however, the comparison should be by individuals rather than by species, and for such a comparison I have no adequate data. My own opinion is that of all the birds commonly seen in April, more than half, perhaps as many as four fifths, are members of the spar row family. There are days, indeed, when the song sparrows alone seem to outnumber all other birds, and other days when the same is true of the snowbirds.

The large and noble sparrow family, which includes not only the sparrows, commonly so called, but finches, grosbeaks, crossbills, snow birds, buntings, and the like, is represented in North America by more than ninety species, and in Massachusetts by about forty. It is preëminently a musical family, and, with us at least, April is the best month of the twelve in which to appreciate its lyrical efforts, notwithstanding the fact that one of its most distinguished songsters, the rose-breasted grosbeak, is still absent.

Among the more gifted of its April representatives are the fox sparrow, — so named from his color, — the purple finch, the song sparrow, the vesper sparrow, the tree sparrow, the field spar row, and the white-throated sparrow — seven common birds, every one of them deserving to be known by any who care for sweet sounds.

One of the seven, the purple finch, also called the linnet, is unlike all the others, and easily excels them all in the fluency and copiousness of his music. He is readily distinguishable — in adult male plumage — as a sparrow whose head and neck appear to have been dipped in carmine ink, or perhaps in pokeberry juice. His song is a prolonged, rapid, unbroken warble, which he is much given to delivering while on the wing, hovering ecstatically and singing as if he would pour out his very soul. He is a familiar bird, a lover of orchards and roadside trees, but is not so universally distributed, probably, as most of the other species I have named.

In contrast with the purple finch, all the six sparrows here mentioned with him have brief and rather formal songs. Those of the fox sparrow and the tree sparrow bear a pretty strong resemblance to each other, especially as to cadence or inflection; the song sparrow’s and the vesper sparrow’s are still more closely alike, and will almost certainly confuse the novice, while those of the field sparrow and the white-throat are each quite unique.

The fox sparrow visits Massachusetts as a migrant only, and the same might be said of the white-throat, only that it breeds in Berkshire County and single birds are often seen in the eastern part of the State during the winter. The tree sparrow is a winter resident, going far north to rear its young, and the remaining four species are with us for the summer.

The fox sparrow is to be heard from the 20th of March (I speak roughly) to the middle of April. In respect to voice and cadence, he is to me the finest of our sparrows proper, though I do not think him so finished an artist as the song and vesper sparrows. He may be recognized by his superior size and his bright rusty-red (reddish brown) color. Indeed, these two features give him at first sight the appearance of a thrush. He is one of the sparrows — like the song, the vesper, the savanna, and the Ipswich — which are thickly streaked upon the breast.

The tree sparrow passes the winter with us, as I have said, but abounds only during the two migrations. He is in full song for the greater part of April. His distinctive marks are a bright reddish (“chestnut”) crown, conspicuous white wing-bars, and an obscure round blotch in the middle of his unstreaked breast.

The white-throat, commonly a very abundant migrant, arrives about the 20th of April and remains till about the middle of May. His loud, clear song is remarkable for its peculiar and strongly marked rhythm. It consists of two comparatively long introductory notes, followed by three sets of triplets in monotone—like see, see, peabody, peabody, peabody. This bird, too, perplexing as the sparrows are usually thought to be, is perfectly well marked, with a white throat (not merely a white chin, as in the swamp sparrow) and a broad white stripe on each side of the crown, turning to yellow in front of the eyes. The crown itself is dark, with a white line through the middle, and each wing is adorned with two white bars. In size the white-throat comes next to the fox sparrow.

The song sparrow and the vesper sparrow not only sing alike, but look alike. The latter may be told at once, however, by his white outer tail feathers, which show as he flies. These are two of our commonest and worthiest birds. The vesper sparrow, more generally known, perhaps, as the bay-winged bunting, likes a drier field than the song sparrow, and is especially noticeable for his trick of running along the path or the road directly in front of the traveler.


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