Can there be a sweeter or more convincing herald of spring than the song sparrow? Certainly the bugling cries of sandhill cranes streaming overhead in March signal the emergence of fresh plant growth and warmer days. But their calls somehow speak of long journeys and ancient times. The song sparrow’s song has none of that long ago, far away strain. It sings of right here, right now.
Some song sparrows have wintered in the Barrington area, nourished by wild seeds and berries or by food provided in backyard bird feeders. But many have spent the coldest months farther south where wild food is easier to find. When they return to local fields and shrublands, they’re some of the first birds to fill the long-quiet air with their music. Dee-dee-dee-deeee; dede zeet zeet, they sing, with the middle syllable prolonged and several notes higher than the others. I love to watch them throw back their heads as they belt out the notes.
Sparrows can be challenging to identify. But recognizing the song sparrow is reasonably easy. Like most sparrows, it’s mostly brown, though ruddier than some. And it’s a streaky bird. When you see a sparrow, one of the first things to note is whether it has a streaked or unstreaked breast. The song sparrow’s breast is definitely streaked and it has a prominent central breast dot. It has a fairly long tail, round head, and thickish bill.
There are a few other sparrows which look somewhat similar to the song sparrow – the savannah, Lincoln’s, and fox sparrows – but each has differences of size, shape, and field marks that distinguish them from the more common song sparrow. As with all bird identification, it takes practice and knowing what clues are important. The locally nesting savannah sparrow, for instance, occurs mostly in open prairies, while the song sparrow prefers hedgerows and shrubby areas. The Lincoln’s and fox sparrows do not breed in the Barrington area and only pass through for brief periods in the spring and fall. The Lincoln’s is smaller and more finely streaked than the song sparrow; the fox is larger, redder, and more boldly streaked. And each species has a distinctive song.
For the many years that I have conducted breeding bird surveys in Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve, the song sparrow easily tops the sparrow list. Looking over tallies from recent years, I see that I rarely count fewer than twenty singing song sparrows on my mile-or-so route. The female builds its nest usually on the ground, well hidden under grass tufts or bushes, or in low shrubs. The nest is circular, with coarser plant materials on the perimeter and fine grasses and rootlets forming the inner cup. Even with an inside diameter of only 2.5 inches, the nest can hold 3-5 eggs and the baby sparrows that hatch from them.
Early spring is a good time to look and listen for song sparrows. They are abundant in the Barrington area – in local forest preserves, fields, parks, backyards. They are not shy birds, and their cheery notes often are the best clue to their whereabouts. Once you’ve located one, often singing at the top of a small tree, the bird is apt to afford you a good, long look – always a welcome gift to any birdwatcher.
Would you like to learn about the Barrington bird population with guided tours from Wendy? Here are the dates and locations for her series of upcoming spring bird walks.
- April 13, 8 a.m.
Cuba Marsh (Park in parking lot off east side of Lake Zurich Rd just south of EJ&E RR tracks. Lake Zurich Road runs between Rte. 14 and Cuba Road)
- May 2, 8 a.m.
Crabtree Nature Center (3 Stover Road off of Palatine Road)
- May 15, 7:30 a.m.
Deer Grove East (entrance on north side of Dundee Road, west of Hicks Road, east of Smith Street. Go to farthest parking area) with optional extension to Younghusband Prairie (entrance on north side of Dundee Road, east of Prairie Middle School)
- May 16, 3:30 p.m.
Baker’s Lake for students and adults (parking lot on Highland Ave. south of Hillside Ave)
- May 18, 7:30 a.m.
Beverly Lake* (parking lot on north side of Higgins Rd/Rt. 72, east of Rt. 25, west of Beverly Road)
- May 21, 8 a.m.
Crabtree Nature Center (3 Stover Road off of Palatine Road)
- May 29, 7:00 a.m.
Headwaters* (parking lot on Wichman Rd. off north side of Rt. 72; ½ mile west of Rt. 59)
- June 6, 7:00 a.m.
Galloping Hill* (meet at Penny Road Pond parking lot, less than a mile west of Old Sutton/Penny Rd intersection)
- June 17, 5:00 p.m.
Galloping Hill* (as above)
*indicates a more strenuous hike
Walks are free though space is limited and RSVP’s are required. Please RSVP to: Daniel Wear (312) 453-0230, Extension 2010 or firstname.lastname@example.org and let them know how best to contact you should that be necessary.
Before you head out, please be sure to check the Citizens for Conservation website for any last minute changes or cancellations. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended and don’t forget your binoculars!
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in the Barrington 220 school district and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington. Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, Wendy taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands. She is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy. Wendy and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.