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The Song-Finch

The Song-Finch

The definitive website on wildbirds & nature

Birds of America

By John James Audubon, F. R. SS. L. & E.


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Bird Call

[Song Sparrow (see also Townsend's Finch and Brown Song-Finch).]

[Melospiza melodia.]


The Song Sparrow is one of the most abundant of its tribe in Louisiana, during winter. This abundance is easily accounted for by the circumstance that it rears three broods in the year:--six in the first, five in the second, and three in the third brood, making fourteen per annum from a single pair. Supposing a couple to live in health, and enjoy the comforts necessary for the bringing up of their young families, for a period of only ten years, which is a moderate estimate for birds of this class, you will readily conceive that a whole flock of Song Sparrows may in a very short time be produced by them.

Among the many wonders unveiled to us by the study of nature, there is one which, long known to me, is not the less a marvel at the present moment. I have never been able to conceive why a bird which produces more than one brood in a season, should abandon its first nest to construct a new one, as is the case with the present species; while other birds, such as the Osprey, and various species of Swallows, rear many broods in the first nest which they have made, which they return to after their long annual migrations, repair, and render fit for the habitation of the young brood to be produced. There is another fact which renders the question still more difficult to be solved. I have generally found the nests of this Sparrow cleaner and more perfect after the brood raised in them have made their departure, than the nests of the other species of birds mentioned above are on such occasions; a circumstance which would render it unnecessary for the Song Sparrow to repair its nest. You are aware of the cleanliness of birds with respect to their nests during the whole period occupied in rearing their young. You know that the parents remove the excrements to a distance from them, so long as these excrements are contained in a filmy kind of substance, of which the old bird lays hold with its bill for that express purpose, frequently carrying them off to a distance of forty or fifty yards, or even more. Well, the Song Sparrow is among the cleanest of the clean. I have often watched the young birds leaving the nest; and after their departure, have found it as well fitted for the reception of a fresh set of eggs as the new nest which the bird constructs. I am unable to understand the reason why a new nest is formed. Can you, reader, solve the question?

I have at all times been very partial to the Song Sparrow; for although its attire is exceedingly plain, it is pleasing, to hear it, in the Middle States, singing, earlier in spring, and later in autumn, than almost any other bird. Its song is sweet, of considerable duration, and performed at all hours of the day. It nestles sometimes on trees, and sometimes on the ground. I have imagined that the old birds, finding by experience the insecurity of their ordinary practice of nestling on the ground, where the eggs are often devoured by Crows, betake themselves to the bushes to conceal their nests from their enemies. But whatever may be the reason, the fact certainly exists, and the nests of the Song Sparrow occur in both kinds of situation. The nest for the first brood is prepared, and the eggs laid, sometimes as early as the 15th of April. The young are out by the first week of May. The third brood is seen by the middle of September. The nest, when on the ground, is well sunk in the earth, and is placed at the roots of tall grasses. It is made of fine grass, and lined with hair, principally horse-hair. The number of eggs is from five to seven, usually from four to six, excepting those for the last brood, which I have seldom found to exceed three. They are of a very broad ovate form, light greenish-white, speckled with dark umber, the specks larger toward the greater end. The male assists in the process of incubation, during which one of the birds feeds the other in succession. At this time the male is often to be observed singing on the top of a neighbouring bush, low tree, or fence-rail.

The flight of the Song Sparrow is short, and much undulated, when the bird is high in the air, but swifter and more level when it is near the ground. They migrate by night, singly or in straggling troops. Some of them remain the whole winter in the Middle Districts, where they are not unfrequently heard to sing, if the weather prove at all pleasant. The greater part, however, seek the Southern States, where myriads of Sparrows of different kinds are everywhere to be seen in low swampy situations, such as they at all periods prefer. It is a fine plump bird, and becomes very fat and juicy. It is picked up in great numbers by the Hen-harriers, which visit us for the purpose of feeding on the different kinds of Sparrows that resort to these States in winter from the Middle Districts. In Louisiana, they are frequently seen to ascend to the tops of large trees, and there continue for some time singing their agreeable chant, after which they dive again into the low bushes, or amongst the rank weeds which grow wherever a stream is to be found. They feed on grass-seeds, some berries and insects, especially grass-hoppers, and now and then pursue flies on the wing. On the ground their motions are lively. They continue running about with great nimbleness and activity, and sometimes cross shallow waters leg-deep. To the eastward, they often frequent orchards and large gardens, but seldom approach houses.

My friend Dr. T. M. BREWER, of Boston, has sent me the following remarks:--"I think there is good reason for believing that two distinct species are confounded under the name of Fringilla melodia. I have long observed the striking differences exhibited by eggs supposed to belong to this bird, and within a few months Mr. CABOT has pointed out to me a uniform difference of plumage, which always accompanies this difference of the eggs. One of these supposed species has been painted by WILSON. It differs in having its breast more universally spotted, while that of the other is much less so, except in the centre, where a number of confluent spots form a distinct star. This last bird is the one painted by you, and is by far the most common. The former builds its nest in bushes or young trees at least two feet from the ground. The most common resort for this purpose is a young cedar tree, where the branches are very thick, where I have twice found an arched entrance leading, to it, and a cover to the nest, made by weaving straw and hay among the thick foliage of the tree. The other always builds on the ground. I have found in the nest of the former six eggs, but never more than five in that of the latter. The egg of WILSON'S bird is larger and less pointed at the small end, the ground-colour, so far as it can be seen, appears to be white, but the whole of the egg is so thickly spotted with blotches of a rusty brown as to appear almost wholly of that colour. The eggs of your bird are of a less size, the smallest end obtuse, the ground-colour of a distinct light green, and perceptible over the whole egg, not even excepting the larger end, where the spots of lilac-brown, with which the egg is spangled over, are the thickest. These differences are uniform. There is still another, which should not be overlooked. The former is always known to breed apart from the habitations of man, in old orchards and pastures; the other is often found to build its nest in our gardens, and not unfrequently under our windows. Such coincident differences cannot be merely casual, and therefore I do not see why birds differing in plumage, nest, and eggs, as well as in habits, should not be regarded as distinct species."

I have placed a pair of Song Sparrows on a twig of the huckleberry bush in blossom. This species sometimes grows to the height of six or seven feet, and produces a fine berry in great abundance. Huckleberries of every sort are picked by women and children, and sold in the eastern markets in great profusion. They are used for tarts, but in my opinion are better when eaten fresh.

Breeds from Texas to Nova Scotia. Not observed in Kentucky. Winter resident in the Southern States. Very abundant.

FRINGILLA MELODIA, Wils. Amer. Orn., vol. ii. p. 125.
FRINGILLA MELODIA, Bonap. Syn., p. 108.
COMMON SONG SPARROW, Fringilla melodia, Nutt. Man., vol. i. p. 486.

SONG SPARROW, Fringilla melodia, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. i. p. 126; vol. v.p. 507.

Adult Male.

Bill short, robust, conical, a little bulging, straight, acute; upper mandible broader, slightly declinate at the tip; gap-line a little declinate at the base. Nostrils basal, roundish, concealed by the frontal feathers. Feet of moderate length; tarsus loner than the middle toe; toes free, the lateral ones nearly equal; claws compressed, arched, acute.

Plumage rather compact above, soft and blended beneath. Wings short, rounded, the third and fourth quills longest. Tail longish, even, the feathers narrow and acute.

Bill deep brown above, bluish beneath. Iris hazel. Feet and claws pale brown. Upper part of the head reddish-brown, mottled with dark brown, with a broad line of bluish-grey down the middle. Back grey, streaked with reddish-brown and dusky. Lower back bluish-grey; tail-coverts tinged with light brown. Sides of the head bluish-grey; a broad line of brown from the eye backwards, and another from the commissure of the mouth. Under parts white, tinged on the sides with grey, and posteriorly with reddish-brown, the neck and breast spotted with dark brown, and the lateral under tail-coverts streaked with the same. Wings dark brown, the quills margined externally with reddish-brown, the coverts margined and tipped with whitish. Tail-feathers uniformly dull brown.

Length 6 inches, extent of wings 8 1/2; bill along the ridge 1/3, along the gap 1/2; tarsus 1, middle toe 3/4, hind toe 2/3.

The female hardly differs in colour from the male. THE HUCKLEBERRY OR BLUE-TANGLES.

VACCINIUM FRONDOSUM, Willd., Sp. Pl., vol. ii. p. 352. Pursch, Flor. Amer., vol. i. p. 285.--DECANDRIA MONOGYNIA, Linn.--ERICAE, Juss.

Leaves deciduous, ovato-oblong or lanceolate, entire, smooth, glaucous beneath, resinous; racemes lax, bracteate; pedicles long, filiform, bracteolate; corollas ovato-campanulate, with acute laciniae and included anthers. The flower is white, the calyx green, the berry globular and of a bluish-black colour. It varies greatly in the form of the leaves, as well as in stature, sometimes attaining a height of six or seven feet.

Huckleberries form a portion of the food of many birds, as well as of various quadrupeds. Of the former, I may mention in particular the Wild Turkey, several species of Grouse, the Wild Pigeon, the Turtle Dove, some Loxias, and several Thrushes. Among the latter, the Black Bear stands preeminent, although Racoons, Foxes, Oppossums, and others destroy great quantities.

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