Sparrow Study


Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

  • Brown crown with narrow grey central stripe
  • Breast whitish with brown streaks and dark central spot
  • Heavy, dark malar stripe
  • Found in thickets, gardens and pastures

Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)

  • Chestnut crown
  • Face grey with dark eye-line and malar stripe
  • Breast unmarked grey
  • Marsh habitat

Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)


Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

  • Chestnut cap
  • Black eye-line
  • White eyebrow
  • Unmarked breast
  • Small size
  • Found in parks, gardens and grassy areas bordered by woodland

American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

  • Chestnut cap and eye-line, grey face
  • Central breast spot
  • Yellow lower bill
  • Breeds in tundra; visits field edges, gardens and open woodland rest of year

American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)


Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sanwichensis) (also below)

  • Yellow over eyes
  • Streaked breast
  • Grassland habitat

Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)

  • Unmarked breast
  • Orangish-yellow lores and yellowish buff face
  • Grassland habitat
  • Buzzy insect-like song

Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)


Spring in the Marsh

The arrival of April sends us in search of snipe.  Wednesday last we heard the snipe’s winnow from the backyard.  It was only brief, and just one bird, but it was the first of the year, and listening to that sound in the mild evening air quite simply is, to me, spring.

We went to the marsh last weekend seeking more.  Whether we were too early in the afternoon, or they were (understandably) deterred by the whipping wind, we saw none.  There were, however, a pair of harriers riding that same wind, and I think that it would be hard for anyone watching them to say that they weren’t having the birdy equivalent of fun.


Northern Harrier

Today, however, was perfect snipe weather, mild and still, and this morning in the marsh we met the snipe.  We heard his winnow and, squinting against the rising sun, finally spotted him high and tiny in the sky.  We listened to his winnow, and watched him as we walked until we lost him.  But he hadn’t flown away… Peent! he cried loudly (to our awed delight) from the cattails nearby.  He never did present himself, but continued to call, invisible.


Wilson’s Snipe

And then a Sandhill Crane flew over (another first of the year) and circled far out over the marsh before descending into the cattails.  Before long, it was joined by another, and they began to call.


Sandhill Crane

Between the snipe, the crane and the frogs, spring in the marsh sure is a wonderful sound : )

Mourning Doves, from nest to name


The Mourning Dove’s nest seems like a precarious place to begin life.  It is “placed indifferently upon a tree or bush, stump or log, or even on the ground – oftenest in the fork of some branch at no great elevation; it is always slight and frail, open-worked of twigs, with little or no softer material.”(Coues, 1883).  This impossibly flimsy-looking platform of small twigs and stems is built by the pair over two to four days; the male delivers materials to the female, standing on her back to pass each item to her.  The first egg of two, of spotless white, is usually laid within two days of nest completion.


The male and female share the responsibilities of incubation, which lasts 14 days.  The hatchlings, altricial with sparse white down, are called squabs.  Both parents feed their young by regurgitation, and this is primarily “crop milk” for the first few days.  Crop milk is secreted from cells of the crop wall, and while the composition of Mourning Dove crop milk is unknown, it is likely similar to that of other pigeons: water, protein, fat and minerals.  Five to six days after hatching, seeds begin to be substituted for decreasing crop milk.  By the time of fledging, around 13-15 days after hatching, the squabs’ regurgitated diet is basically the same as their parents’.  For about twelve days after the young leave the nest, they are fed almost exclusively by the male while the female prepares for her next clutch.


A short-lived species, the average adult lifespan of Mourning Doves is only about a year.  Nevertheless, this dove is “among the most abundant and widespread terrestrial birds endemic to North and Middle America.”(Otis et al., 2008).  They can be found in southern Canada, all of the lower 48 states and even into temperate Mexico.  Most northern breeding populations are migratory, while more southern populations are typically residents.  The Mourning Dove makes its home in a range of landscapes, from urban to rural, favouring open and edge habitat.


”Mourning Doves will live and nest in very dry regions, but they prefer the neighborhood of water, and if not nesting near water they fly long distances to it to drink and bathe, both morning and night.”  (The Mourning Dove, unlike many birds, drinks by suction, and does not need to lift and tilt its head after taking a mouthful of water.)  “Travelers in the desert in their search for water have learned to follow the morning and evening flight of the doves.”(Forbush, 1939)

“Most Arizona ‘rivers’ have no water in them; and in that extraordinary country, where everything goes by contraries, the sight of a Dove is a surer sign of water than the site of a stream.”(Coues, 1883)


Granivorous, seeds from wild and cultivated plants constitute 99% of this dove’s diet.  It forages on the ground, in pairs during nesting season and larger flocks later in the year, quickly filling its crop and then digesting its food later at a loafing or roosting site.  It is also a common feeder visitor, making this softly coloured dove familiar to many.


The adult male, with pale rosy breast and bluish hue to his crown and nape, is slightly more colourful than the female, with tannish breast and brownish crown and nape.  All soft round lines, the Mourning Dove’s gentle appearance seems at odds with its swift, highly manoeuvrable flight and the startling whistling with which it explodes into the air.  The whistling is particularly noticeable during alarmed take-offs, and Coleman (2008) found that the sound startled and caused increased vigilance in nearby doves as well as other bird species.  A 2016 study (Niese and Tobalske) on the tonal sounds produced in flight by Rock Pigeons (Columba livia) found that the outer primaries were responsible for the sound.  The portion of the barbs in these feathers had characteristics causing them to have decreased stiffness and “aeroelastic flutter.”  The sound produced by this flutter only occurs during the downstroke and is most easily detected during take-off, when the velocity of the wing-tip is highest, as opposed to during steady flight when wing-tip velocity is lower.  The whistling flight of Mourning Doves, however, may also be heard during landings and occasionally when large migrating flocks pass overhead; so, while the sound may have an alarm role, function of the whistling remains uncertain.

Anyone familiar with the Mourning Dove will also be familiar with the seemingly mournful cooing call, “that no person of sensibility can listen to without sympathy”(Wilson, 1808-1814), from which it gets its common name.  This call is presumably responsible also for the species’ collective name of “dole” or “piteousness.”  Alexander Wilson, in his American Ornithology, describes it thus:

“This is a favourite bird with all those who love to wander among our woods in spring, and listen to their varied harmony.  They will there hear many a singular and sprightly performer, but none so mournful as this.  The hopeless woe of settled sorrow, swelling the heart of female innocence itself, could not assume tones more sad, more tender and affecting.

“There is, however, nothing of real distress in all this; quite the reverse.  The bird who utters it wantons by the side of his beloved partner, or invites her by his call to some favourite retired and shady retreat.  It is the voice of love, of faithful connubial affection, for which the whole family of doves are so celebrated; and, among them all, none more deservingly so than the species now before us.”

(Indeed, the pair bond may persist through both the nesting season and the winter, and in a bird whose average adult lifespan is a year, this relationship verges on a lifetime.)


The Mourning Dove’s other names are less melancholy.  Historically, it was referred to as the Carolina Pigeon or Carolina Turtledove.  Today, it belongs to the genus Zenaida, named for Zenaide Bonaparte (1801-1854), daughter of Joseph Bonaparte.  Her husband (and cousin) Charles Lucien Bonaparte was an ornithologist and named the Zenaida Dove after her.  The name was later applied to the genus, which includes the Mourning Dove.  The species name, macroura is derived from the Greek ‘macro,’ meaning large or long, and ‘oura,’ meaning tail.

“Sumtimes thairs a grate similarity between two things that’s much alike, but the turtle dove and the snappin turtle haint much similarity – hardly enny.  They doant sing alike At all.  The turtle dove has much the sweatest vois.  The snappin turtle haint no voice – leastways none that i no of.  The oanly thing thair alike is if you ketch them thayl boath try to git awa.” (Benson, 1874)


All photos copyright R. Lancashire.


Baicich, P.J. and C.J.O. Harrison.  2005.  Nest, eggs and nestlings of North American birds.  Princeton University Press, New Jersey.

Benson Sr., P. 1874. A book. Geo. F. Root and Sons, Chicago.

Coleman, S.W. 2008. Mourning dove (Zenaida macroura) wing-whistles may contain threat-related information for con- and hetero-specifics. Naturwissenschaften 95(10): 981-6.

Coues, E.  1883. New England bird life.  Part II.  Lee and Shepard Publishers, Boston.

Forbush, E. 1939. A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America.  Revised by J. Bichard May.  Bramhall House, New York.

Niese R.L. and B.W. Tobalske. 2016. Specialized primary feathers produce tonal sounds during flight in rock pigeons (Columba livia). Journal of Exp. Biol. (advance online article)

Otis, D.L., J.H. Schulz, D. Miller, R.E. Mirarchi and T.S. Baskett. 2008. Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura), The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America:

Wilson, A. 1808-1814. American Ornithology.

First Place Birds


Caspian Tern, by R.A. Lancashire

About Canadian ornithologist P.A. Taverner (1875-1947):

From biographical notes prepared by Taverner, himself, we learn that his earliest definite memories are of a kindergarten at Highland Falls, New York.  They concerned hunting the first flowers of trailing arbutus in the spring, watching Baltimore Orioles and their nest in the tree in the front yard, and seeing in St. Nicholas magazine a picture of a Scarlet Tanager.

W.L. McAtee, Auk, Vol. 65, an. 1948


And so, naturally, I got to thinking about my own early bird memories.  There were birds before, but the first time I remember really noticing birds was when I was ten.  It was a Sunday in April, and I seem to recall that it was windy and rainy, but I could be wrong.  On the way home from church I spotted a pair of birds standing in the parking lot beside Chemong Lake.  As we drove past, I thought something along the lines of “those don’t look like seagulls.”  After getting home, dad drove me back down to check it out.

They were Caspian Terns; I thought them incredibly exotic and was accordingly awed.

And then, as if that wasn’t enough, we spotted a Common Merganser in the lake.  With its long body and thin bill, it was a far cry from the familiar Mallard, the only duck I knew, and again I was suitably impressed.  But the Caspian Tern will always have that special first place.

So, what was your first bird?

The Cathedral-bird’s Song

The song of this Thrush, one of the sweetest sounds of the woodland, is among the earliest notes of the morning, and is often heard during the day and in the dusk of evening.

The last two phrases are lower in tone than the first, and end with a vibrating chord which suggests the vanishing of the note into ethereal space.  The melody often has a muffled sound when heard near by, but at a distance it seems to ring out clear. 

To be fully appreciated, this song must be heard when one is alone in the deep woods, among the falling shades of the coming night.  It breathes the spirit of the dying day.  Sometimes at evening these thrush songs reply to one another like echoes in the moonlight.

Edward Howe Forbush in Useful Birds and their Protection, 1907


Veery, in pen and ink, by Rachel Lancashire

In such safe retreats, where the sombre shade is brightened here and there with stray beams of sunlight, in the warmth of which myriads of insects bathe their wings and flutter away their little span of life, humming a quaint refrain to the gurgle of the rivulet, the Veery meets his mate – the song rises – the wooed is won – the home is made.

Elliot Coues in Birds of the Colorado Valley, 1878

Through the canopy arching above, slanting streams of sunlight fall among the shadowed colonnade, illuminating the tiny life that moves in seeming stillness.  Deep shadow deepens still and suddenly, from this sylvan glade, rises song.  But the song does not rise.  It falls, a descending spiral, down and down and down, sweetly metallic, not echoing, but somehow lasting.

Ethereal and haunting capture something of the Veery’s song, so far as words can.  The breathy metallic notes are otherworldly, so delicate, but so clear, somehow filling the empty spaces all around.  They cease suddenly, leaving in their wake a silence that is different from the one before.  A silence so, so empty, and yet so full, all bated breath, waiting, hoping, for the song to rise, nay, fall, again.  It is a sound that seems to belong to medieval forest, where great ancient trunks ne’er seen by human eyes tower to the light, and far below tiny brooklets trickle among the gnarled mossy roots.  It is undisturbed, and utterly, wholly wild.  It is the sort of place where fairy tales begin, and belongs to a time before, a time when we didn’t pretend to know it all.  The Veery is a gentle reminder that we aren’t as all-knowing as we think we are.

For the past two centuries, and as recently as the mid-1990s, the Veery’s winter range has been generally described as including a broad swath of tropical South America and sometimes even Central America.  It was not until 2001 that J.V. Remsen, Jr. noted that the specimen records seem to indicate that the true winter range of this thrush may actually be in south-central and southeastern Brazil.

With spring, the Veery returns to its breeding grounds in the north, flying as far as 285 km in one night, and flapping all the while, unlike its brethren who flap and coast in turn.  Hidden within the dense understory of deciduous forest, the nest is built on or near the ground, a cup of leaves and bark and fine rootlets.  Close setting on her small clutch of bluish eggs, the female thrush’s dusky cinnamon feathers, veiled in dappled spring shadow, blend with the forest floor.

Of all the many times that I have heard the Veery, I have seen it only once.  But its song is enough.  I know from the flutey notes that it is the Veery; I know without doubt that it is the Cathedral-bird that sings.

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what is visible.

Hebrews 11:1,3  NIV

Bevier, L.R., A.F. Poole and W. Moskoff.  2005.  Veery (Catharus fuscescens).  In The Birds of North America Online, No. 142 (A. Poole, Ed.).  Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.

Remsen, J.V. Jr.  2001.  True winter range of the Veery (Catharus fuscescens): lessons for determining winter ranges of species that winter in the tropics.  Auk, 118(4): 838-848.

Beyond All Praise

“The little Black-capped Chickadee is the embodiment of cheerfulness, verve and courage.  It can boast no elegant plumes, and it makes no claims as a songster, yet this blithe woodland sprite is a distinctive character, and is a bird masterpiece beyond all praise.  It is spruce and smart in its plain black, gray and white livery; and its cheery, cordial notes are the ‘open sesame’ to woodland secrets.”

From A Natural History of American Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Edward Howe Forbush, revised and abridged by John Bichard May, 1939