Song Sparrows in the Piney Woods

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent
Louisiana Ecrevisse

• Boyce, LA

Sparrows are the classic LBJs of the bird world Little Brown Jobs. Over 30 species spend some time in Louisiana every year but there aren't a lot of species that breed here. One of the best known visiting sparrows is the Song Sparrow that spends the cold months in Louisiana and adjacent southern states.

You'll rarely hear the Song Sparrow's signature song in the Southland - a series of trills and clear notes with slightly husky quality and pleasant gentle rhythm that begins with several short, sharp notes usually with one long trill in the middle of the song seet seet seet seet to zeeeeee tipo zeet zeet. This is because the Song Sparrow generally saves its singing for its northern breeding grounds. However, sometimes in April, before they leave, one can occasionally hear the males practicing the song. Male Song Sparrows do the singing in this species. Young birds learn their songs not only from their fathers but also singing males in surrounding erritories.

In the North, the Song Sparrow is a very conspicuous species that is abundant in the spring-summer breeding season in farmyards, towns, and residential areas in city suburbs.

They are common feeder birds. In the South, the Song Sparrow is hard to find and spends much time skulking in dense cover in rural areas. They are hard to see in thickets making low, nasal tchip notes. They will respond to screech owl calls, squeaking, and pishing sounds but rarely provide the observer with more than quick glances.

In our region, I typically find Song Sparrows in wet, brushy areas associated with ditches, canals, bayous, streams, rivers, swamps, ponds and lakes. While Song Sparrows feed, like other sparrows, primarily on seeds much of the year, they capture many insects and other invertebrates to feed their young. In fact, Song Sparrows do forage in very shallow water and will catch and eat small crustaceans where the opportunity presents itself.

Song Sparrows are medium-sized sparrows about the size of common House Sparrows. Those commonly found in the Southland are reddish brown in color and have heavy streakings on the underparts that are concentrated into a prominent black spot in the center of the breast.

The face is gray with a black line through the eyes. Although they are similar in appearance with Savannah Sparrows, they have rounded, not indented tails, are somewhat larger and are rarely found in the open field habitat preferred by Savannah Sparrows.

Ornithologists have, through time, identified as many as 52 different subspecies of Song Sparrows. This is not surprising considering the continent wide distribution of the species with so many different habitats. However, only 24 subspecies are currently recognized. Those that nest in arid areas are much lighter in overall color than those in wetter, greener habitats. This is a form of protective coloration that permits birds to blend into their background and not stick out like a "sore thumb".

Song Sparrows control body heat by through the bare surfaces of their bills. These can both radiate heat or absorb heat. Those subspecies associated with hot microclimates have much larger bills than those associated with cooler microclimates.