Outdoors on late summer mornings, I strain to catch any hint of bird song. For those who relish the avian breeding season symphony, the end of summer represents a bit of an auditory desert. As breeding season wraps up, with no need to attract mates or defend territories, the birds quit singing. Some even head out for their wintering grounds in Central or South America. But a few species of birds actually start singing again after a late summer break, primarily to defend a territory through the winter. After going silent in late June, one of the most reliable winter singers—the Song Sparrow—cranks it up again in late August and September.
These familiar sparrows rank among the most widely distributed songbirds in North America. A medium-sized, long-tailed bird, its creamy chest features heavy streaking that converges in a distinctive breast spot. Males and females look similar. The male’s song often announces his presence long before you see him. Variable but simple in pattern and easily recognized, the song usually begins with two to four (commonly three) quick, clear, identical notes followed by a long trill and an ending that has several short notes. (I learned the song as “Maids, maids, maids—put on the TEA kettle-ettle-ettle.” Really. This mnemonic recalls the three introductory notes and the bouncy jumble that closes the song.)
The Song Sparrow is the most abundant bird in San Diego County’s riparian woodlands. Freshwater marshes, low vegetation, shrubs, or any dense vegetation near a bit of water offer it habitat as well. Irrigation and importation of water have let this species move into areas formerly unsuitable, compensating for losses of riparian habitat. The amount of habitat needed to support a pair appears to be quite small: Song Sparrows often defend a patch of ornamental shrubbery as small as 1500 square feet.
Although a frequent host for eggs of the brood-parasitic Brown-headed Cowbird, Song Sparrows remain common in San Diego County. The local population appears practically sedentary, found in the same areas year-round. In large part, that’s why they sing even in the winter—to defend their permanent territories. Here Song Sparrows usually nest from March to July, building their cup-shaped nests in or under dense, low vegetation. Life moves quickly if you’re a young Song Sparrow. Clutches contain three to five eggs; chicks hatch 13–15 days after the first egg is laid; the young depart 8–12 days after hatching. After fledging, though, they become some of the most persistent, vocal kids. For more than two weeks, they give short “location notes” approximately 30 times/minute, pursuing the parents and sometimes even landing on them while begging with fluttering wings and loud calls. The young finally become independent after about 24–30 days. Mom often initiates subsequent nesting and incubation before the young from the previous brood become independent, leaving Dad to ride herd on the fledglings. In unusual circumstances—say, if insect prey abound or after the loss of several consecutive clutches to predators—Song Sparrows have laid as many as seven clutches in a single breeding season and have successfully reared up to four broods. No wonder Brown-headed Cowbirds haven’t made much of a dent in Song Sparrows numbers in this county.
The Song Sparrow’s scientific name—Melospiza melodia—strongly reflects the male’s lovely song: Melospiza means “song finch,” from the Greek melos (“song”) and spiza (”the chaffinch”). From Latin, the species name (melodia) refers to a pleasant song. The common name, obviously, highlights the song too (Song Sparrow). “Sparrow” derives from the Anglo-Saxon word spearwa (“to flutter”), originally used to refer to any small bird.
Song Sparrows are widespread, common, and probably somewhere near you at this very moment, no matter where you are. Although Song Sparrows occur throughout most of North America, the birds of different areas can look surprisingly different. Even though it’s a species I’m very familiar with after 25 years of birding in Colorado, I still stop to puzzle out the considerably darker, richer pattern of San Diego County’s Song Sparrow. But don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences these birds show across North America throw you off. It’s one of the first species you should suspect if you get good looks at a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area. If it perches boldly on a low shrub, leans back, and tosses out a stuttering, bouncing song, you can clinch the ID—Song Sparrow!