(Contributed photo by stephmcblack from Pixabay)
(Contributed photo by stephmcblack from Pixabay)
Let’s start with some good news! I recently reported that there were concerns among avian scientists that backyard bird feeders could aid in the spread of the devastating avian flu that’s sweeping the globe. Fast-forward a few weeks and we’ve learned that unless you have free-range poultry, you can probably leave your feeders up, according to the National Wildlife Disease Program. Turns out songbirds just aren’t good reservoirs for the IAV virus. Cornell’s All About Birds website has detailed information that can help you with your personal decision; just remember that if you do leave feeders up, cleaning them regularly helps prevent all kinds of disease spread.
If you do leave your feeders out, you might see all manner of unusual birds this time of year, especially this year when a number of rarities like orchard orioles and lark buntings (another Western bird encroaching on our region) have been making appearances around the South Shore area. his week I spotted members of a species that, while not a rarity, I’ve never seen at my bird feeder before: white-crowned sparrows.
White-crowned sparrows are handsome birds that are winter residents for much of the U.S. Around here we generally only observe them during the spring migration, when they’re on their way to their breeding grounds in Alaska and far northern Canada (they also breed in the northern Rockies in the continental U.S.). The best way to tell them apart from other sparrows is the bright black-and-white pattern on their heads paired with a pinkish or yellow bill. Sometimes the stripes form a crest on the bird’s head. They slightly resemble white-throated sparrows, who can be distinguished by the bright yellow patch on their heads and the bright white “beard” under their bill. Juveniles of the two species may be harder to tell apart. They tend to feed in flocks — I had three or four of them — and stick to the ground, cleaning up after other birds. They coexisted with other birds in my yard, but the chipping sparrows and few remaining dark-eyed juncos will get chased away once the white-crowned sparrows establish their territories.
One of the more interesting and confounding things about white-crowned sparrows is the marked difference in their songs depending on the subspecies and its location. Most of these songs start with a single high-pitched whistle and end on a buzz or trill. I tend to be better at identifying birds through calls than through appearance, and I’ll be darned if I could tell their songs apart from all the other sparrow and finch racket going on this week. Females also have their own songs that they sing very occasionally to protect their territories or a food source in the winter. Males also have about 10 different twittery calls, so good luck parsing those out. Males and females like to give each other some space; mated pairs spend the winter apart, but most of them get back together again the following summer to raise another family.
Another interesting thing scientists have observed about these birds is their stamina. They’ve been observed flying up to 300 miles in a single night during migration. This energy expenditure is another reason to consider leaving feeders out at least through the migration season, since these mighty mites need to fuel up. Some particularly demented scientists have somehow determined that white-crowned sparrows can run on treadmills at about one-third a mile an hour. I wonder if these scientists are in cahoots with the ones who put tiny backpacks on birds to track their movements. At any rate, these sparrows definitely go the extra mile on foot or on wing.
White-throated sparrows may not be seen around here for most of the year, but they’re a thriving species with a worldwide population of 79 million or so. Their numbers are holding steady, which is encouraging considering how many songbirds are in decline right now. We’ll wish them a good summer in the tundra and keep an eye out for them again when autumn rolls around.
Sarah Morris is a bird-watcher and outdoorswoman who explores northern Wisconsin from her home base in the town of Gingles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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