Swamp Sparrows Common

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

• Louisiana Ecrivisse
• Boyce, LA

To most observers, all sparrows are simply "LBJs Little Brown Jobs"! But, if you are able to observe the birds carefully, you'll find that most are distinctly different and are often colored with various combinations of black, brown, gray, and white. These colors can be highlighted with reddish brown and yellow. All in all, the birds are well camouflaged as long as they aren't moving!

Most of our sparrows show up in October and leave by April. One such sparrow is the Swamp Sparrow.

In this case, the name pretty much explains where you'll find these little birds around water in dense vegetation that affords them protection from predators.

The late Roger Tory Peterson describes Swamp Sparrows as being " ..A rather plump, dark, rusty winged sparrow with tawny flanks and black back striping. Adult: White throat, rusty cap, blue-gray neck and breast. Immature: Blackish or dark rusty crown, olive-gray neck and breast; dim flank streaking ."

You'll need binoculars to get good enough views of Swamp Sparrows to confirm Peterson's description but it's worth the effort! And, you'll see theirs gray faces, gray napes (necks), and dark eye stripes.

So, how do you get Swamp Sparrows and other small, secretive song birds to give you time to look at them rather than hide from you? Ever heard of "phishing"? This has nothing to do with the internet or bodily functions. Basically, one repeats "phish, phish, phish" in various combinations and tones. This imitates the scold or alarm calls of chickadees and titmice. That's when the birds identify a "problem" and other birds join the caller(s) to seek out and neutralize the danger. But, in this case, you're the calling bird and often other birds will show up to give you a decent view even if you can't see/hear any birds to start off.

Swamp Sparrows don't nest in our piney woods region. They nest only in wetlands in the northern parts of their range using bogs and fens with patches of open water. Most breeding occurs in freshwater marshes with cattail, sedges, and other tall reeds, or grasses, often edged with alders or willows. One subspecies, however nests in brackish marshes in the mid-Atlantic states.

Food is typical sparrow fare including seeds, fruits, and invertebrates. Winter food is 85% plant matter but the same percentage is animal matter in spring and summer. Animal food is potpourri for sure including ants, bees, wasps, beetles, aphids, caterpillars, and crickets as well as aquatic invertebrates especially molting damselflies and dragonflies. Swamp Sparrows have unusually long legs for sparrows.

They readily walk onto muddy margins and wade into shallow water, even immersing their heads to capture invertebrates, sometimes flipping immersed vegetation to find their prey.

You'll rarely hear a Swamp Sparrow singing in the South because the males reserve their songs for the breeding grounds although they do sometimes practice about the time they leave us! The song is not so much of a song as loose slow, sweet, strong trill. In the winter you'll find the birds by listening for a hard cheep coming from heavy cover around water. When disturbed, especially by birders, these sparrows will run mouse-like, through reeds or grasses rather than taking flight.