American Sparrows

A flock of birds scrapes, pecks and hops its way through the leaf litter. Though it might as well be called sparrow litter, white-throated sparrows to be precise, since the birds are so active, so well camouflaged, so everywhere-at-once that it is hard to tell where leaves end and sparrows begin.

The North American continent has no shortage of sparrows, either in population terms or in number of species (there are 27 that bear the name sparrow and a further 8 in the same taxonomic family). These white-throats were raised on the rich insect life of Canadian summers before flying south to winter in scrubby, brushy edge habitats throughout the eastern part of the United States. Here they often seem to me almost ludicrously abundant, at least compared to the birds that we call sparrows.

The WB&A Trail at Bowie, MD. Sparrow country.

The WB&A Trail at Bowie, MD. Sparrow country.

Did I say litter? White-throated sparrows are worthy of much finer words than one that is analogous to rubbish. They’re much more than little brown jobs too, though that’s what they might seem at first glance. Their feathers are a beautiful, streaked collection of chestnut, beige, cream and grey, set off by a charming stripy head pattern, this being white-on-black or the slightly less striking tan-on-brown depending on colour form. Their song is evocative and sweet, a sing-song whistle often transcribed as ‘Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada’ that gently rings out in the underbrush even in winter.

Did I say sparrows? Such are the trickeries of taxonomy and transatlantic language differences that the American sparrows are not that close of kin with the ‘old world’ sparrows, in much the same way that the new and old world vultures, flycatchers and warblers are only distant relatives. The white-throated sparrow and their ilk are in the family Emberizidae, known to us Europeans as buntings. Set a more familiar brown, streaky, seed-eating Emberizid – a reed bunting, for example – next to the North American sparrows, and it suddenly makes a lot of sense. There’s another species possessing a subtle, complex beauty that is enhanced rather than diminished by its un-showy style.

Neither brown nor streaky, a little more variety is added to the American sparrow scene by dark-eyed juncos. They have an even more widespread wintering range than white-throated sparrows and are at least equally charming. Behind those dark, beady eyes they are real characters, chasing between back-yard feeding stations in cheerful flocks of slate-grey birds some twenty or thirty strong. Within the juncos yet more complexity unfolds, for several distinct forms exist across America with those hailing from Oregon being, in my humble opinion, particularly fetching – though I’ve never seen an Oregon junco in the feather.

By Richard Crossley (Richard Crossley) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Juncos by Richard Crossley (Richard Crossley) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons. From the Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds. 

Within the American sparrows, then, are many of my favourite birds to watch whilst over the pond, and their brothers and sisters back home are close to my heart, too, from the little fat bird of the barley – the corn bunting – to the effortlessly bright, refreshing yellowhammer. Let’s hear it for Emberizids, and the conservationists working to keep their numbers up – for surely the joyous abundance of their bright, bouncing flocks is one of the keys to their appeal.

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Death Becomes

During our recent stay in the USA, a cardinal had an unlucky fatal collision with the patio doors at the back of the house. The unfortunate bird was either a female or a juvenile male, from its mixture of buff-brown and orange-red plumage. Adult male cardinals are, of course, a bright scarlet. Gingerly, I extended its wing. Two primary feathers on each were only about half grown, and since cardinals don’t lose and regrow their flight feathers during their first summer I could see this was an adult female.

By coincidence I was partway through reading Bernd Heinrich’s book Life Everlasting, a lovely little meditation on the process and meaning of death in the animal world. In it he describes a series of experiments conducted at his cabin in the Maine woods, in which he left out carcasses in order to study the behavior of Nicrophorus beetles, known as sexton or burying beetles. What more fitting burial could I arrange for the recently expired cardinal than one conducted by beetles? I took her down to the edge of the woods and retreated, hoping the insect undertakers would soon arrive.

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Ebb and Flow

Summer in Maryland was apparently a temperate, rainy affair this year. On our recent trip we saw the evidence of this everywhere we went. The Great American Lawn was resplendently lush and green, weedy vegetation was rampant, wildflowers were plentiful. A wetter than average summer in Britain can be bad news for insects since the average summer is wet enough to begin with.

In the often very hot and very sticky mid-Atlantic USA, rain is clearly a boon, keeping vegetation from drying out – which ensures a good supply of food for insect herbivores (and by extension their predators) right through the season. Insects were abundant this September, predominately big ones like the cicadas and crickets mentioned in my last post, and a superb variety of large hymenopterans which I admired but have not begun to identify, if you’ll excuse the uncaptioned photographs. The strikingly handsome Goldenrod soldier beetle seemed to be in the peak of its mating season.  Add in warm and humid conditions that prevailed throughout most of our stay and it felt a lot like high summer still held sway.

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