Birding on Bloedel: Look, and listen, for the Song Sparrow

The Song Sparrow lives year-round in the Northwest.
The Song Sparrow lives year-round in the Northwest.

“A Year of Birding in Bloedel” is a column that runs every Friday in the Bainbridge Islander. The project is planned to continue in 52 parts through 2014 to help readers find and identify birds in the island’s garden sanctuary. Each column will also be published here on the Bainbridge Conversation blog each Friday. 

The author, Ted Anderson, is a retired professor of biology, having taught at McKendree University (Ill.) for 32 years and for the University of Michigan’s summer biological station for 20 years, where he frequently taught the biology of birds.

Anderson is also the author of “Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow, from Genes to Populations” (2006), and “The Life of David Lack, Father of Evolutionary Ecology” (2013). Ted and his wife Carol have been members of Bloedel Reserve for 7 years. They live in Kingston. 

As both its common name, Song Sparrow, and scientific name, Melospiza melodia, imply, this species is indeed one of our most melodious songsters. It is a common year-round resident in the Pacific Northwest, and as our days begin to lengthen in late January male Song Sparrows start to declare their ownership of a territory by singing regularly, heralding the impending arrival of spring. The song typically begins with two or three introductory notes, followed by another series of notes at a different pitch, and ends with a trill. Each male has a repertoire of different songs based on this general theme.

The Song Sparrow has a broad range in North America, breeding throughout much of the continent from Alaska and northern Canada southward into Mexico. Like many widespread species it exhibits considerable variation in size and coloration over this extensive range. The birds of the Pacific Northwest are much darker than those elsewhere and demonstrate a general pattern in many organisms that is codified in Gloger’s Ecogeographic Rule. This rule states that animals in hot, dry environments are much paler than normal, while those in cool, moist environments are much darker. Among the possible adaptive reasons for this pattern is the fact that dark plumage absorbs more solar radiation assisting the individual in maintaining its internal body temperature in a cool environment, while light plumage reflects more solar radiation reducing heat intake in a hot environment.

Song Sparrows live near the near the ground, normally foraging for seeds and insects on the ground, and nesting either on the ground or in a low bush. They live in forest edge habitats particularly near water. At Bloedel look for Song Sparrows around the bird marsh, but they are also common elsewhere in the reserve. Look for the males on exposed, elevated perches when they are singing. They have dark brown/black backs, and light underparts streaked with brown — and a prominent spot, their “stick-pin,” in the middle of their chest.

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About Ethan Fowler

Ethan Fowler has more than 20 years of journalism experience with 19 years of daily and weekly newspaper experience covering news, features and sports, as well as being an editor for 14 of those years. He has won several writing awards over the years in Washington state, Virginia, Texas and Georgia, including award-winning investigative journalism. Fowler was paid by the Review & Herald Publishing Association in 2009 to co-author a book, "Brushed Back: The Story of Trevor Bullock," with his wife. The book details the real life of a top minor league pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization and his Christian faith. "Brushed Back" has sold more than 2,000 copies since its release.