Plants and Animals

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Field Sparrow

Closer inspection reveals the beauty of this understated resident of Missouri’s fields.

SPRINGTIME IN MISSOURI bestows an abundance of sights, sounds and aromas. Natural elixirs to soothe the doldrums of late winter. I’m amazed at how fast the fields around our farm green up, almost overnight. I never grow tired of listening to the call of spring peepers from my tiny pond. A short walk to the woods reveals a canvas of yellow, purple, white and blue. The forest floor debuting its latest collection of fragrant wildflowers. If I’m lucky, I’ll spot more flashes of yellow in the trees, travel-weary warblers arriving from their long migration.

Although I cannot select one gift of spring as my favorite, I would have to rate the song of the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) high on my list. The song itself is simple: a series of notes, the same pitch, starting slow and accelerating to a trill. It is not as captivating as the song of the white-throated sparrow, or as haunting as that of the hermit thrush. But as I sit at the edge of a scruffy field, basking in the gentle warmth of the vernal sun, the song of the field sparrow kindles memories of springs past and contemplation of pleasant days to come.

Diminutive, the field sparrow is less than 4 inches long from tip of bill to tip of tail. Some consider its appearance to be as plain as its song. Described in respected field guides as drab, the field sparrow is far from a showy specimen. On closer inspection, you’ll find an understated composition of browns and reddish-browns, highlighted by wing bars and a rufous cap. Add to that a buff chest, a salmon-colored bill, and a thin, white eye ring and you have, in my opinion, an elegant bird. In spring plumage, as shown in the photograph, the field sparrow is quite beautiful.

The field sparrow is considered common throughout Missouri. It is a summer nester in our state. By winter, most field sparrows have drifted south, at least to southern Missouri, where their status becomes uncommon. As their name implies, field sparrows prefer old fields, woodland openings, glades and edges, where they forage on seeds and insects. They are not too proud to take handouts—I sometimes find them gorging on cracked corn around our chicken coop. Male field sparrows often return to the same territory each spring where they continuously serenade any female within earshot. Once mating is achieved, the female constructs a cup-shaped ground nest of grass, rootlets and hair. Up to five, creamy-white eggs are incubated for about two weeks and nestlings fledge eight days later.

Sometimes in late winter, if I’m feeling a little low, I listen to the field sparrow’s song to remind me of greener days just over the horizon. It’s easy to do, as this little bird’s melody can be found on the Missouri Department of Conservation’s website at mdc.mo.gov/node/4411. Of course, the electronic version can never replace the real thing, but if you’re like me, you’ll still find solace in this simple tune, an aural harbinger of spring.

—Story and photo by Danny Brown

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