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Brooklyn Bird Watch: September 9

The Song Sparrow. Scientific Name: Melospiza melodia

September 9, 2021 By Joseph Palmer
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Today, Brooklyn Bird Watch features an excellent Heather Wolf photo of a Song Sparrow on a branch in the snow in Brooklyn Bridge Park.

The Song Sparrow is another one of the song birds with a very poetic sounding scientific name. Birds, not surprisingly, have inspired and appeared in many poems throughout the centuries; the Skylark (Shelley), the Nightingale (Keats), the Crow (Ted Hughes), the Swan (Yeats), the Blackbird (Wallace Stevens), and the Owl (Robert Frost), but for someone to compare the sparrow’s song to Beethoven was a first for me. Wikipedia writes, “The sparrow species derives its name from its colorful repertoire of songs. Enthusiasts report that one of the songs heard often in suburban locations closely resembles the opening four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s Symphony No. 5.”

Yet, the Cornell Lab described it this way: Don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences this bird shows across North America deter you…If it perches on a low shrub, leans back, and sings a stuttering, clattering song, so much the better.
The male uses a fairly complex song to declare ownership of its territory and attract females.”
And Cornell Lab also tells us, the Song Sparrow is found throughout most of North America, but the birds of different areas can look surprisingly different.  The range of the Song Sparrow is continuous from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to the eastern United States.

A rich, russet-and-gray bird with bold streaks down its white chest, the Song Sparrow is one of the most familiar North American sparrows. Song Sparrows of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain are darker, and they’re huge: one-third longer than the eastern counterparts, and weighing twice as much.

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Audubon says “this melodious sparrow is among the most familiar birds in the Northeast and Midwest. At times it is rather skulking in behavior, hiding in the thickets, seen only when it flies from bush to bush with a typical pumping motion of its tail. Usually, however, sheer numbers make it conspicuous.”

In spring and summer, Song Sparrows are one of the most visible of all sparrows. Males sing often, perching around eye level on exposed branches. Like many other songbirds, the male Song Sparrow uses its song to attract mates as well as defend its territory.

Interestingly, laboratory studies have shown that the female Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself, but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to learn. Males that used more learned components in their songs and that better matched their song tutors (the adult bird they learned their songs from) were preferred.

Part of the message Brooklyn Bird Watch tries to celebrate is the fascination people have with watching birds, even in one of the world’s largest cities. So I thought I end by sharing a masterfully structured picture with words (a poem) about watching a bird, written by the great American poet Robert Frost.

Questioning Faces

The winter owl banked just in time to pass
And save herself from breaking window glass
And her wings straining suddenly aspread
Caught color from the last of evening red
In a display of underdown and quill
To glassed in children at the window sill.

-Robert Frost


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