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The Recorder - Field of dreams

Happy Star Wars Day everybody! I can’t tell you how happy I am to be done with the wettest, coldest most interminable April that I can remember. April was a long, cold slog punctuated by glimpses of summer. Ultimately, the ghosts of late winter conspired to deprive me of a goal I set for myself.

The goal is my personal record for bird species observed in my yard in the month of April. The record, set in 2017, was 51 species and when I set it, I knew it was going to be a difficult record to beat. That was the year that a pair of red-breasted nuthatches stayed to breed. That was the year that a belted kingfisher flew over the house. Too many odd species appeared that year to make it an event likely to repeat.

Coronavirus confinement gave me a real chance, but I realized it probably wasn’t going to happen when I stood at my kitchen window on April 22 and gazed out at high winds and heavy snow. Ultimately, the weather just wasn’t with me, but there was one particularly bright break in the gloomy clouds of April that came in the little feathered form of a bird that often exists at the fringes of our awareness. A bird that is quiet, unobtrusive and altogether charming. The bird I am speaking of is the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) and this past month has seen a tremendous personal breakthrough with this species for me.

The field sparrow is on the small side, as our local sparrows go. The white-throated sparrow measures in with a length of 6.75 inches, the song sparrow is about 6.5 inches, the American tree sparrow, even the dark-eyed junco, have a length of 6.25 inches. The field sparrow only measures in at 5.75 inches, making it one of the smaller species. Thus, the scientific name of the species makes sense. The word “Sprizella” is a diminutive form of the Greek word “spiza,” which means “little finch,” while the word “pusilla” is the Latin word for “tiny.” There are certainly smaller sparrows around, but the field sparrow made an impression.

Technically present in our area throughout the year, this is one of those species that simply disappear during the late fall and winter months. It is always a big deal when they “return” to my yard and this year they arrived right on time during one of those brief glimpses of warmer weather. My first sighting was on April 18, but in past years I’ve seen them as early as April 9 and as late as May 11.  

As their name suggests, field sparrows are attracted to fields and fields can be somewhat rare these days. I’m talking about wide-open places devoid of trees that are also spared the mower. Pastures and hay fields are the only areas where this sort of habitat is typically found, but I am lucky to have a very large wet meadow on my back yard where trees are kept at bay due to the water in the ground.  

Every year, I have field sparrows singing in the meadow and their song has been described as a high whistle that follows the pattern of a bouncing Ping-Pong ball. Each note follows the last in a shorter amount of time than the previous note until you hear a “trill” of notes at the very end. This call is quiet and easily missed in our noisy human world but if you can find a quiet place you will know it when you hear it.

Field sparrows build their nests out of woven grasses. Early nests are typically on the ground, whereas nests built later in the year can be placed in low bushes. The female does all of the nest building and then deposits three to five speckled eggs into a normal clutch. Again, the female is solely responsible for incubating the eggs for the next 10 to 12 days until the eggs hatch. Then the male, who has been busy defending the pair’s territory, can finally help with feeding the chicks, who can fly in as little as two weeks.

This quick breeding cycle allows the female field sparrows to start second nests while the males continue caring for their fledglings. Thus, a cooperative and industrious pair of field sparrows can have two or three nests in one year, producing six to 15 chicks. I’ve never seen one of these little birds, but this year might be the year.

On one of the rare, sunny days that we had last month, the local field sparrow decided to come up onto my deck and visit while I was sitting there writing in my journal. As “friendly” as a chickadee, this little bird was eating comfortably while only about 10 feet away from me. It saw me move, it heard my voice and just didn’t seem to care. If this bird remains as calm and accepting of me throughout the summer, then there is a real chance that it may lure its youngsters to the deck for an easy meal and, from my perspective, that would be a dream come true.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 22 years.  He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics.  Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go t o Speaking of Nature on Facebook.

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