On classic early and mid-October days, when the sky reigns brilliant blue over a golden landscape, I love to go looking for sparrows. I head to shrubby border areas in the countryside that are thick with vegetation, looking for those illuminated by the early morning sun. While notes from bluebirds waft overhead, I find a strategic spot to stand, and do what many birders do to elicit a response from their quarry: I emit a series of soft pish sounds. If I’ve chosen well, soon small, mostly brown and white birds begin to pop into view, sometimes five or six different species at once.
Many of the sparrows are migrants passing through, having completed their breeding tasks in regions to the north. But another species is one that has been in the Barrington area since April and, in fact, nests locally. That species is the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). It was one of the first sparrows to return after winter and it’s one of the last to leave.
One might assume from its name that the field sparrow is a bird of open fields or prairies. But actually it prefers brushy habitats. Over many years of conducting breeding bird surveys in Cook County’s Spring Creek Forest Preserve, I’ve documented many field sparrows, but always in shrublands, not in open grasslands. The species has declined steadily in Illinois over the past several decades, but in the Barrington area that is rich in public forest preserves and private protected areas, it is quite common.
In a family of birds that can be difficult to tell one from another without a lot of practice, the field sparrow is easy to distinguish, both by appearance and song. Compared to other members of its clan, it has an overall pale appearance. In sparrow identification, it’s important to determine right away if the bird in question has a clear or streaked breast. The field sparrow is of the former variety, with no mark on its pale, buffy front. It has other helpful field marks, too: a mostly gray head with rufous cap, white eye ring, and a pink, conical bill that compels one to describe it as “sweet”.
Should the visuals still perplex – perhaps the bird is distant or hidden by foliage – the song is a giveaway: a clear flow of accelerating notes whose cadence some liken to that of a ping pong ball that bounces in increasingly rapid sequence until it stops. But in October the field sparrow is not singing, and has not been singing for several weeks. So it is imperative to actually see the bird. Fortunately it does seem to be curious and responds readily to the pishing lure. I’m always surprised this time of year at how many field sparrows I spot among its cousins – white-throated, white-crowned, song, savannah, swamp, Lincoln – all clustered overnight in the same dense shrubbery.
Any day now the field sparrows will be departing to southern parts of our country and into Mexico. Their trills have sweetened summer days and their recent appearances have animated sunlit thickets. We must wait until next April to greet them again. But if you can get out soon with your binoculars to scan dense shrubbery in the early morning, you may well still catch a lingering, though silent field sparrow.
If you’d like to learn more about the Birds of Barrington, Wendy invites you to join any of her upcoming Fall Bird Hikes. They’re free and open to the public, though space is limited and RSVP’s are required. Waterproof boots are strongly recommended and don’t forget your binoculars!
October 21, 8:00AM
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)
October 25, 8:30AM
Galloping Hill* (park at Penny Road Pond parking lot in Barrington Hills)
November 1, 9:00AM
Crabtree Nature Center (3 Stover Road off of Palatine Road)
*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 email@example.com 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 Wendy Paulson
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.