Saturday, December 5, 2009

In the backyard... Song Sparrow

Song SparrowSong Sparrow, Fernhill Wetlands, Forest Grove, Oregon on 7 February 2009 by Greg Gillson.


The most common resident sparrow in the Pacific Northwest is the Song Sparrow. It is found in brush piles and wetlands throughout the region and, indeed, most of North America. Migrants from northern areas add to our local population in winter. Populations in 31 recognized subspecies gradually change plumage characters and measurements across the continent. West of the Cascades birds are fairly distinctive. They are dull and rusty-patterned over a gray background (as photographed above). Most other populations are brighter with brown streaks on a whiter background color. See the Sibley Guide to Birds to get an idea of some of the variation.

Go up to any willow clump or blackberry tangle and "pish" (make a drawn out "psh-sh-sh-sh" sound), or make squeaking sounds by kissing the back of your hand, and a Song Sparrow likely will pop up immediately like a jack-in-the-box.

Both male and female Song Sparrows sing, and all through the year, too. Voices vary somewhat, but I've always liked the mnemonic: "Madge! Madge! Madge! Put on your tea-kettle," as a good description of harsh opening notes, followed by a jumble of musical notes. Bewick's Wrens have similar quality songs of harsh single notes and trills in various patterns. The common call note of Song Sparrow is a loud "chimp" call. They also give a very soft, high-pitched squeaking "see" call when alarmed.

Female Song Sparrows build a nest in a low bush and lay 4 eggs. They nest 2-3 times in a single season.

Song SparrowSong Sparrow, Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, Hillsboro, Oregon on 1 December 2009 by Greg Gillson.


There are many sparrows and female finches with striped breasts similar to Song Sparrows. Such common similar birds in the Pacific NW are Savannah, Fox, Vesper, and Lincoln's Sparrows, as well as females of House, Purple, and Cassin's Finches. The female Red-winged Blackbird is another striped bird often confused with sparrows by beginners.