The round table on my patio looks like a huge coconut cake with 15 inches of snow on it. The peripheral lights look like giant ice cream cones. The good fairies came during the night and plowed my driveway. The birds are flocking to my feeders. Yet, despite 15 inches of snow, my heart sings, “Spring is here!”
I know that because I have heard a song sparrow sing. Warren Roski reported one on Feb. 20 at Evergreen Lake, and I heard one along Bear Creek near the Episcopal church today. I knew it was time. Every year, the first song sparrow sings at Evergreen Lake between Feb. 15 and March 1. Our song sparrows are right on time.
Can’t say that these are the first migrants for in many cases, song sparrows do not migrate but choose to over winter in marshy areas or along open streams. They also nest in similar areas but any open or shrubby area will do. Song sparrows are very common birds, nesting in yards wherever they can find a bit of cover. One of their favorite nest locations is on the ground under the arching fronds of last year’s growth of a clump of grass.
They are not forest birds, but then, they do nest in forest areas, though it is always along the edge. They seldom nest much more than three or four feet from the ground. I think the wintering song sparrows look for damp places or steam sides because they are good places to find food. Dead insects, worms, etc., wash up along the edges of water as do most seeds, which are light and float wherever water takes them.
Aside from the two mentioned above, I frequently found my first song sparrows along Bear Creek where the bridge crosses the creek on Parmalee Gulch Road. Troublesome Gulch and Kerr Gulch are two other places where we always looked for song sparrows on the Christmas Bird Count.
The wintering song sparrows don’t do much singing. They act like they had a cold and lost their voices. You may hear their single chip call note, but when they first start to sing, they sound like they had forgotten how. But after a few days of practice, they seem to get their voice back and are singing their full song. It is believed that this loud, robust song is used to declare and protect their territory and to attract a mate.
Song sparrows have long linear territories compared with other birds because they follow the creek to stay near water. One study found that their territories averaged 30 feet wide by 150 feet long. In heavily populated areas, they can average six to 10 per acre.
Song sparrows have a very large range. They have been divided into some 60 subspecies and forms, and can be found from the offshore islands of the Atlantic to the offshore islands of the Pacific oceans, and from the Arctic Circle to well into Mexico. Few other birds have such a large range. Therefore, they vary from small light-colored desert birds to large dark birds in the Arctic.
Nevertheless, they are still our beloved, boisterous song sparrows and there is no surer sign of spring than a song sparrow perched on a pussy willow branch, singing his heart out.
Song sparrows lay from three to six eggs, usually four, in each clutch and usually have two or three broods. As soon as the earlier brood is fledged, the male takes the young under his wing while she refurbishes her nest and lays another clutch of eggs. They have several broods but are limited by the arrival of cold nights here in the mountains.
Watch for them at the lake. There are usually at least two pairs nesting there. One pair always is up near the dam where Parmalee Creek runs into the lake, and the other is near the entrance to the park where you cross over Bear Creek.
The mountain bluebirds should be back and looking for houses. The Evergreen Audubon Society will be holding its annual bluebird nest box sale on Saturday, March 9, and if there are any left, on Sunday, March 10, in front of King Soopers in Bergen Park and Conifer.
These are called bluebird boxes and are made to the measurements determined to be best for them, however, wrens, nuthatches, swallows and chickadees readily use the same boxes. Attract more birds to your yard by supplying them with nest boxes, and they will repay you by eating many of the insects that damage your trees. Evergreen Audubon uses the money it makes on this sale to do many of the programs it does locally, so the money stays right here in the community.
Bluebirds in the snow are also a sign of spring in the foothills and a beautiful sight.