We humans do too, of course. We have staircases, elevators, airplanes and space ships to carry us above our ordinary plane.
But the song sparrow has no ordinary plane.
The song sparrow inhabits a range of levels, from the ground to the tree tops.
Imagine what this would mean for humans.
Then imagine humans could reach such a plane on our own.
Of course, we have reached proportionately similar planes. As you read, humans are orbiting the earth.
But that is an accomplishment apart from our physical abilities. We need external modalities, machines, to accomplish such a feat.
For song sparrows, an equivalent leap, from ground level to tree top, is accomplished physically, with its own body and with very little effort. It is routine for a song sparrow to travel from ground level to tree top in a single motion, almost without effort.
No human could do that.
Song sparrows occupy far less horizontal space than humans do, as well. Our daily routines take many of us over many square miles. Song sparrows spend their days within a nesting territory that encompasses a few hundred square feet.
These realizations struck me with unusual force last week, while I was on my hands and knees picking peas in the garden. This is solitary and largely silent work. The only sounds are the snap of the peas being pulled from the vines, the mosquitoes seeking a blood meal and the birds singing.
I heard a familiar bird sound. I was quite sure it was a song sparrow, but I decided to test my conclusion. The sound was coming from above me. That’s no surprise, since picking peas is a horizontal task. Still, it took several minutes before I located the source of the song. A small bird was perched on the outermost branch of a cottonwood tree. It appeared full-bodied, but with a long tail. This combination gave it the look of a lollipop, the tail being the handle. It seems to me this is an apt description of the song sparrow. This “general impression of size and shape”—giss in birding parlance—immediately suggests the species.
The song serves to clinch the identification. It is a complex series of notes, some quite musical and some rather grating. Here is the description from the monograph on the species published by the American Ornithologists’ Union: “A varied series of two to six phrases, three or four phrases common. Introductory phrases usually with one to 20 pure notes or complexes but fewer than seven most common. Remaining phrases composed of buzzes, trills and/or note complexes. Overall tone typically cheery and rhythmic, but some buzzes or notes harsh or unmusical.”
A complicated mixture, in other words, but on the whole quite pleasing.
Males are the singers, as they are in most bird species. Bird song is usually meant either to assert territoriality or to attract mates—both aspects of the same reproductive imperative, of course.
But sitting back on my heels, listening to a song sparrow pour out its song, I had to wonder whether the bird might be celebrating itself and its vertical world.
Song sparrows have a relatively prolonged nesting season, from early May to mid-September, in our area, according to Robert E. Stewart’s “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” so perhaps the bird in the cottonwood tree above my pea patch was announcing its territory or even seeking a mate.
Either would be an excuse to sing.
Often, it is singing that attracts attention to song sparrows, but it is not song alone that distinguishes them. They likely will be instantly recognized as sparrows because they have the overall brown color and the streaking characteristic of the clan. Song sparrows are large, as sparrows go. They belong to the group of streak-breasted rather than clear breasted. Overall, they appear rustier in color than most sparrows. Crucially for identification, the streaks on their breasts converge in a central spot. This is prominent and should clinch identification.
The song sparrow is another American bird. It occupies the entire continent, except for the far North and southern Central America. It is common. Though it is not exactly conspicuous, it isn’t shy, either.
There are wide variations across the continent among song sparrows. Ornithologists currently recognized two dozen subspecies; as many as 52 have been described. The species is of scientific interest for the complexity of its song and its regional variations.
For a gardener intent on his crop of peas, the song sparrow is a welcome companion and a source of wonder.