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Just another Harris’s Sparrow

January 4, 2012
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It’s a big sparrow.  Massive and bulky with a head like a buffalo.  Truly the king of the Zonotrichias, even if it doesn’t officially wear a crown, and it was one of my target species for my trip back to the midwest over the holidays.  I’d seen exactly one before, on a November afternoon in 1994 around the French’s mustard plant in Springfield, Missouri.  I remember it distinctly: the unremarkable hedge that held the bird, the faint odor of condiments in the air, my stomach rumbling for an accompanying industrial sized hot dog.  Harris’s is an impressive sparrow, after all, and not easily forgotten.

Even since I left for the east coast, my dad has done very well in the way of Harris’s, attracting them to his feeding station on especially cold and snowy winter days.  But they’re more easily found off the Ozarks plateau on the edge of the plains.  He was very confident as we headed west, pulling over to stop at the old homesteads buffered by lines of trees and bramble thickets.  these are the places where Harris’s Sparrow can be found.  At the first stop, a first year bird popped out in response to some pishing.

I was excited, obviously.  The bird, associating with juncos and White-crowned Sparrows, was puffed out against the cold wind, making the already imposing sparrow seem even more so.  The White-crowns that hung around in the same area were lithe in comparison, with slender necks and flat-topped heads, nothing like this bird, who, even lacking the black mask of the adult, was every bit as impressive in stature.

I wondered whether I’d get more, and better, looks at the species.  I shouldn’t have.  We drove the long way around a conservation area managed primarily for Greater Prairie-Chicken, as it is the quixotic quest of the Missouri Department of Conservation to continue to pour resources into protection of this all-but-extirpated species*, and aside from a short and thrilling experience with a dark-phase Red-tailed Hawk, practically all the birds we saw were Harris’s Sparrows, a grand total of 15 of the birds roosting around a tool shed.  Not just the washed out juvis, but the black-marked adults, with that amazing face and soft brown cheek.  This is a jaw-dropping sparrow.

*See, the chickens prefer far more extensive grasslands than the MDC is able to provide in the small patches the state owns in the area.  They need to be able to have grass, with zero trees, to the horizon, and in this land of windbreaks and barbed fence hedgerows, that’s just not happening.  All attempts to continue to introduce farm raised birds have ended poorly, with most of the introduced birds heading off by whatever means they can to Kansas and Oklahoma, which are both nearby and have robust populations of Greater Prairie-Chicken.  It’s sad Missouri can’t support Prairie-Chickens anymore, but it’s just not tenable.  Now, back to the sparrows…

There are lots of Harris’s Sparrows in these parts, and they are not hard to find.  They have a call note that sounds like a cartoon spring and a deeply haunting single-note song that they belt out year round like the rest of their genus.  That species name, querula, means plaintive, and a better description of the song, more thin and tenuous than even White-throated Sparrows, isn’t possible.  They’re wonderful birds.

I love living in North Carolina, so close to both mountains and sea and with an impressive list of birds to find, but it’s experiences like this that make me miss the midwest I grew up in.  The wide open plains and pock-marked karst of the Ozarks.  The ropes of Snow and White-fronted Geese in the fall.  The shorebird expressway running through Kansas in late summer.  The occasional Harris’s Sparrow at your feeder.  There’s a lot to like.

But the grass is always greener. And the minute I hear that Brown-headed Nuthatch out my back door, I’m back in the present.

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4 Comments
  1. January 4, 2012 11:00 am

    Nice bird. I’m still LBJ illiterate, but working on it.

  2. January 4, 2012 12:09 pm

    Ahh, my favorite sparrow. Or at least near the top. This year was a relatively good year for them in my neck of Minnesota. Some years I don’t see them at all, but this fall, I had a good half-dozen sightings or so. Always only 1 or 2 at a time though, and generally first-year birds. Someday I hope to see a nice flock of adult birds.

  3. Nate permalink*
    January 4, 2012 7:47 pm

    @Geoff – This is a good one, and really more of a BBJ than an LBJ. They really are big sparrows.

    @jmj- I’m jealous you get to see them semi-regularly. I’ve never seen the adults in their breeding finery though, just the winter browns.

  4. January 5, 2012 10:07 am

    That is one heck of a handsome sparrow. Your descriptions of the state you originally hail from make me want to visit.

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