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The Song Sparrow of America.

Updated on August 9, 2015


This article is another in the series of North American birds, as seen through the eyes of past ornithologists. The article looks at the lifestyle and the breeding habits of this familiar species. The perception of these past ornithologist is an insight to the history of the bird and the distribution in their times.

The Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia belongs to the Passeriformes { perching birds} and is now placed in the Family Emberizidae, but this has not always been so as we shall see.

Ode to the Song Sparrow

" By the road in early spring

Always hopefully you sing;

it may rain, or it may snow,

Sun may shine or wind may blow,

Still your dainty strain we hear-

' cheer-cheer-

Never, never fear.

May will soon be here!

Darling little prophet that you are! "

John James Audubon-ornitholigist

Audubon was regarded as the greatest wildlife artist of his time especially his illustrations of birds.
Audubon was regarded as the greatest wildlife artist of his time especially his illustrations of birds. | Source

In Audubon's days

In Audubon's days the Song Sparrow was placed in the Family of birds known as the Fringillidae {finch family} and placed in the genus Fringilla [melodia} and was also referred to as the Song Finch.

Audubon wrote, the Song Finch {sparrow, which it will be referred to from now on-wards} is one of the most abundant birds of its tribe in Louisiana during the winter. This abundance is easily accounted for by the circumstance that it rears three broods per year. Six in the first, five in the second and three in the third, making fourteen per annum, from a single pair. Supposing a couple live in health and enjoy the comforts necessary for the bringing up of their young families, for a period of only ten years, which is a moderate estimate for birds of this class*, you will readily conceive that a whole flock of song sparrows may in a very short time be produced by them.

Harriers which visit us for the purpose of feeding on the different kind of sparrows that resort to these states in winter from the Middle districts. In Louisiana, they are frequently seen to ascend to the tops of the trees, and there continue for some time singing their agreeable chant, after which they dive again into the low bushes, or among the rank weeds which grow wherever a stream is found."

* Audubon seems to have over estimated the life span of this species which is thought to be around three years in the wild.

Audubon's illustration of the Song Sparrow


Lifestyle of the Song Sparrow

Robert Ridgeway describes one hundred and forty four species and sub -species of sparrows. They are small birds of the ground or not far from the ground that find elevated perches for rest and song. The Song Sparrows plumage is of neutral colours which are designed as a means of camouflage in the exposed situations which they inhabit. They have a stout conical bill admirably adapted to crushing seeds of the weeds which they make them a most useful bird.

The flight of the Song Sparrow is short, and much undulated when the bird is high in the air, but swifter and more level when it is near the ground. they tend to migrate at night, singly or in straggling troops. Some of them remain all year in the Middle Districts, where they may often be heard in song if the weather remains pleasant. The greater part however, seek the southern states, where a plethora of Sparrows of different kinds are every where to be seen in the swampy localities, which they tend to prefer wherever they may occur.

Like the familiar little Chipping sparrow, the Song Sparrow is one of the true harbingers of spring, and its delightful little song is delivered from the top of some shrub in early March and April before most of the other songsters have thought about leaving sunnier climes. According to Henry W. Henshaw, --"Song Sparrows vary in habits as well as in size and colouration; some forms live along streams bordered by deserts, others in swamps among bushes and tules, others in timbered regions, others on rocky barren hillsides and still others in fertile valleys. With such a variation of habit the diet of the bird is also diversified. About three fourths of its diet consists of seeds of noxious weeds and one fourth of insects. Of these beetles, especially weevils constitute the larger portion"

As previously mentioned this species is a true harbinger of spring and even in the bleak days of February and March it greets the turn of the year with a song. However, by April he is in full song and when April slides into May and May into June, with mating and nesting activities in full flow his delight in song is evident. Although his song is consistent with the tribe, this species varies his song considerably more than the others. Mr. Abbot says that this plainly clad Sparrow proclaims himself to be a good 'pres-pres-pres-by-te-rian'.

The Song Sparrow by Henry Van Dyke

" He comes in March when winds are strong

And snow returns to hide the earth;

But still he warms his heart with mirth;

And waits for May; He lingers long

While flowers fade; and every day

repeats his small contented lay;

As if to say, we need not fear

The seaon's change, if love is here

With ' sweet;sweet-sweet-very merry cheer"

2 He does not wear a Joseph's coat

Of many colors smart and gay;

His suit is quaker brown and gray

With darker patches at his throat

And yet of all the well- dressed throng

Not one can sing so brave a song

It makes the pride of looks appear

A vain and foolish thing to hear

His ' sweet-sweet-sweet, very merry cheer! "

Song sparrow singing

The image was taken Delaware USA and was originally posted on Flickr
The image was taken Delaware USA and was originally posted on Flickr | Source

Nest eggs and young

Early in April often before any foliage clads the trees or the grass is growing with any conviction, the Song Sparrow may well have selected its nest site, and the construction of its family abode commences. Although there are records of three broods being common, two is considered the norm, the first in May and the second in July.

The Song Sparrow nests in various localities however, it seems to prefer moist low grounds than the uplands. Occasionally nests have been encountered along the border of upland woods. Nests are placed both upon the ground and in stunted trees, bushes and drift piles. A slight depression is selected in grass, often at the base of a weed or bush.

When a tree or a bush is selected the nest is usually low down in a cavity or opening, and rests upon old leaves, grass, straw and other debris left by the water. The materials employed are very similar wherever the nest is situated. Nests located in trees or bushes require a much stronger foundation than those located upon the ground otherwise they are similar. The foundation, is usually constructed of fine dried weed stems, often with their roots attached, blades of grass, straws and sometimes pieces of dead leaves. The main body of the nest is composed of similar, yet more selected material, and the lining made of slender blades of grass, generally, split and hairs. ordinarily these hairs are from the tail of horses or cattle, usually black and so numerous as to cover up the first layer of the lining.

The external diameter is about four to five inches, the cavity is very regular and smooth. Inside the cavity the eggs are deposited with the clutch consisting of 5-6 eggs, there have been records of seven being encountered, however, this large clutch seems to be a rare occurrence. The second set contains one or two less than the first and any third set produced is one less in number than produced in the second.

They are uniform in size and shape as the other birds' eggs in this family, but very variable in their colouring. The ground colour can sometimes be blue as those produced by the Chipping sparrow, but some times is a muddy brown. the average eggs are however, a faint dull blue.The quantity of the markings vary also, from a few blotches and specks to an almost solid colouring. Some specimens have a well formed wreath around the crown, either of confluent or distinct blotches, spots and specks. others closely and uniformly speckled as eggs of the House wren. Between these extremities, all combinations are encountered.

The colour of the mars is always reddish brown sometimes dull and dirty, but ordinarily clear. All the eggs in the set are, generally, of the same size and shape and marked with the same pattering, but occasionally one egg is much smaller or larger than the rest with a different patterning, however, this peculiarity does not belong to the Song Sparrow alone.

Nest of the song sparrow

The Image  is of a nest situated in a depression in a bank sloping down to a stream, protected only by blades of blue grass.May 15 1881
The Image is of a nest situated in a depression in a bank sloping down to a stream, protected only by blades of blue grass.May 15 1881 | Source

A report of the Song Sparrow 1875 and an interesting story

In his book ' Illustrations of the Birds' Nest and Eggs of Ohio' 1886, Howard Jones tells of a forth coming report on Ohio's birds. Dr. J.M. Wheaton [ Author of the report} is quoted by Mr.Jones as ---" That this bird {the Song Sparrow}has a strong attachment to the nest. It also pssesses mental qualities akin to reason, was happily demonstrated by a pair observed by me in June 1875. The nest had been built upon the ground, within a few feet of the track of the Little Miami Railroad, almost a mile to the west of this city{ Columbus Ohio}.

Some laborers, in clearing away the undergrowth and cutting the grass along the track, had discovered the nest and removed it placing it very insecurely in the fork of an horizontal limb of a Maple sapling, about three feet from the trunk. Instead of deserting the nest as many other birds would have done, or attempting to secure it to the limb on which it was placed, the birds started gathering long stems of Timothy grass, and fastened them by twisting the tops together and around the limb, extending over the nest, at a distance of one and a half feet.

The lower end of the stems were fastened into the rim of the nest, and others knitted transversely forming a pretty complete basket work. The whole structure resembled an elongated cone, or inverted balloon. The only openings sufficiently large enough to admit the passage of the birds were on the entrance over the limb of the fork, and on exit directly opposite. In this remarkable structure the eggs were hatched and the young safely reared "

Song sparrow



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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi, thank you for your visit. Glad you like sparrows and that you enjoyed the hub. Best wishes to you.


      Hi Deb, I know you will be familiar with these little birds and I thought that you would be endeared to them. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I do so adore these little beauties, as they really DO help usher in spring!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      extraordinary about the song sparrow I like sparrows and the American sparrow has so many great facts.


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