Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Of all wild bird songs, the fox sparrow's sound is the 'sweetest'

STACEY COLE May 17. 2013 9:21PM

I received two photographs from a long-time Exeter reader friend who wished me to identify the bird pictured.

In a brief note our reader queried: "Is this a Song Sparrow? I see him by my feeder now and again."

The photos were of a fox sparrow, the largest of our sparrows. There is a slight resemblance between the fox and the song sparrow, but in general coloration, the back of the fox sparrow has a rich, chestnut color that bestows a dark, reddish tinge to its back. The song sparrow (sexes alike) appears to have an ordinary brown colored back. The breast of a fox sparrow is heavily streaked with dark stripes. On the other hand, the breast of a song sparrow is not nearly as heavily streaked. Being lightly striped, the general coloration of its breast appears white. In spring, a large dark spot shows in the center of the song sparrow's breast a little below its chin. This spot becomes somewhat diffused in late summer after the bird's post nuptial molt.

Edward Howe Forbush, in his "Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States," wrote of the fox sparrow: "The Fox Sparrow is a bird of the lingering snow. It arrives in New England commonly in March, while there is still much snow in the woods, and may be seen along the edges of woodlands, working often in thickets where the ground is bare, and is scratching away as if for dear life. This is one of the few of our sparrows that scratches with both feet at once. It leaps into the air, and while off the ground scratches or kicks quickly with both its powerful feet, making them fly as well as everything they touch, before it lands on them again.

"Thus it is able to excavate rapidly, throwing leaves and dirt sometimes a yard or more. If after it arrives, a snowstorm comes on, covering the ground with several inches of snow and cutting off most of the smaller birds from their chief food supply, this does not inconvenience the lusty Fox Sparrow.

"He excavates! Jumping and scratching he makes the snow fly, and soon is at the bottom of a hole and at his usual occupation of turning over the dead leaves and searching for seeds and insects. It is a pretty and stirring sight to see a flock of Fox Sparrows all at work in this manner, and throwing little jets of snow over the white carpet." (The eastern towhee also scratches through leaves with both feet.)

With respect to the song of the fox sparrow, Dr. S. D. Judd (1901) has characterized its singing as: "... utterly unsparrow-like, a unique performance that seems not in the least akin to bird music, but more like the soft tinkling of tiny silver bells."

I hope our reader had an opportunity to hear the fox sparrow in full voice. Of all the songs of wild birds, I think that fox sparrows' sound the sweetest. They have such full, rich tones with just an added plaintive touch. In addition, the fox sparrow is a ventriloquist if I've ever heard one. That gives these birds the unusual ability of hiding themselves without moving from place to place. They can sound as if they were here, then over there, and even far away.

Unfortunately for us, fox sparrows are not with us long in spring as they soon migrate to Labrador and Newfoundland to build their nests in the trees, bushes, and often on the ground.

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In early April a Milford reader forwarded a photo of a bird that greeted them as returnees from a month in Florida after the snowstorm in late March. The letter read in part:

"It was a long day made even longer when we found our driveway unplowed. It took a long time and many 'runs' at the steep hill driveway to finally get to the garage. We were nearing the garage doors when I looked out and saw our friend in the enclosed picture just coming in for a landing on a branch just beyond my bird feeders. I was driving and so excited I almost didn't make it to the garage. When I did I grabbed my camera from the back seat and kept shooting.

"Leaving the car, I kept walking toward it taking pictures the whole way. It seemed to be as interested in me as I was of it. This is the last picture I took before it flew into a very tall pine out of camera range. I think it was of a Barred Owl? I have bird feeders in my back yard that have been attended a few times by my daughter but were no means kept as full as I usually keep them when I'm here. I'm guessing that the owl had been stalking my birds and, with nobody home, been making a meal of the birds that were still coming to the feeders.

"Thank you so much for your column. It is always very interesting and brings back many memories from my youth as I was raised in a small cape with a large barn on 100 acres. We were always free to roam at will."

Our reader was correct. The photo was of a barred owl.

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey.

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