The Song Sparrow is one of the most common sparrows across much of North America – even if you can’t say for certain whether you’ve ever seen one, you’ve almost certainly heard one at some point, even if you didn’t recognize its song. Song Sparrows are the exact opposite of the “habitat specialist” – they live in a wide variety of open habitats, including marshes, open grasslands, desert scrub, agricultural fields, overgrown pastures, alvars and old fields, lake edges, forest edges, and not-so-quiet suburbs. It is a rare day when I go out birding between late March and mid-November when I don’t at least hear one of these birds singing in the background or chipping at me from a dense thicket next to the walking path.
The Song Sparrow is a fairly hardy species, often arriving in mid- to late March while there is still snow on the ground and ice on the ponds. Like most sparrows, the Song Sparrow is drab in colour, brownish-red on top and white below. It has a heavily streaked breast and a central spot on its chest. The streaks on its chest are quite messy, not fine and neat like those of a Lincoln’s Sparrow or a Savannah Sparrow. Its white throat is bracketed by two dark wedge-shaped stripes called “malar stripes”, and its tail is rounded rather than notched. The triangular malar stripes and the lack of any other colour – no yellow stripe over the eye, no buffy wash on the chest, and no red cap – help distinguish it from other sparrows. If you see a heavily streaked sparrow on the ground beneath a feeder or singing on a branch out in the open in a suburban park, Song Sparrow is the first species you should suspect.
Song Sparrows are widespread throughout the region, but once breeding season is finished it becomes much more difficult to find them. Usually there is a resurgence of song in late September and early October, as autumnal recrudescence causes adult males to confuse the shorter daylight hours with those of the spring breeding season, and first-year males begin rehearsing their own attempts at song. By the time large flocks of northern sparrows arrive in early November, you will be hard-pressed to find a Song Sparrow among the juncos and the White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows flooding the forest trails and weedy green spaces. However, pishing in areas with thick vegetation where these sparrows are common in the summer (such as along the shoreline at the Eagleson storm water ponds or boardwalks at various Stony Swamp trails) will often elicit an annoyed chip note late in November.
By late November most Song Sparrows have left our region, although it is possible to find the occasional individual in December. I’ve had some luck in my local area, though for some reason I only tend to find December Song Sparrows in even-numbered years!
While some individuals have managed to overwinter in Ottawa, I’ve never found one myself that lasted through the cold, dreary winter before – in fact, I’ve never seen a Song Sparrow in January before, although in 2015 I did return to the boardwalk at Old Quarry Trail to see if I could find the Boxing Day Song Sparrow for my 2015 year list!
This year, however, I’ve managed to find not one, but three in my local area! This is likely because of milder temperatures this winter (very few nights so far have dropped below -10°C, and the daytime high has rarely strayed much below 0°C) as well as practically no snow cover. Until today we’ve had more rain than snow (including 25 mm of rain on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), making it easy for overwintering birds to find seeds and insects.
The first was a surprise sighting at the Richmond Lagoons on January 3rd. I had gone there to search for winter finches, particularly crossbills as I was still missing both species for my brand new 2021 year list. I only saw one finch, a single Common Redpoll which flew in from the south and landed in a shrub right in front of me. However, I was astonished to see a large flock of American Tree Sparrows in the same area. While I was scanning them I heard the distinctive chip note of a Song Sparrow – then found it creeping through the cattails along the shore of the middle cell directly opposite the new platform.
The second was at the Beaver (Chipmunk) Trail. I’d seen from eBird that one was present on January 3rd, and when I visited the following morning I found a Winter Wren instead. Its call note is similar in tone to the Song Sparrow, and when I first heard it from a distance I thought perhaps it was the Song Sparrow. However, as I got closer I clearly heard the “check-check” notes as well as the trilled “kip” notes. When I returned four days later the Winter Wren was gone, but I found a Song Sparrow in the same area. A number of American Tree Sparrows have been overwintering near the back boardwalk, and when I first arrived they all flew into the nearby thickets for cover. As I put seed out on the boardwalk railings and the chickadees came in to feed, they started flying in as well. A few were walking on the ground below the observation platform – and the Song Sparrow was with them.
The last Song Sparrow was seen at Sarsaparilla Trail on January 11th. Like the Richmond Lagoons sparrow, it was not a species I was expecting, and it was skulking in the cattails right next to the boardwalk. In fact, cattails and water seem to play a large role in the places where all my winter Song Sparrows were found – I don’t recall where I saw the Song Sparrow in Andrew Haydon Park back on December 4, 2016, but every other Song Sparrow was seen in the cattails of a marsh or vegetation near the water. Interestingly, I have returned to both Sarsaparilla Trail and the Beaver (Chipmunk) Trail since those early January sightings and found the flocks of American Tree Sparrows, but not the Song Sparrow, although the Song Sparrow at Sarsaparilla Trail was reported on eBird again today. (Fortunately I did find a White-winged Crossbill flying over Sarsaparilla Trail on my last visit, making it a worthwhile visit!)
Hopefully these sparrows will manage to make it through the winter, or fly south if weather conditions worsen. Even if I don’t manage to see one again this winter, migration is less than two months away now, and I should see – and hear! – the first returning Song Sparrows in only eight weeks!
Thank you. I’ll be listening for the song when I walk.