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Song sparrows find their voice as winter fades, spring nears

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Our Evergreen World

By Sylvia Brockner

February creeps to a close. It is to me the most dreary month of the year. The pleasantness of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays is over, and winter seems to really settle in, with both more snow and colder temperatures.

February was also the time when my husband Bill and I usually took one week of his vacation time and went south for a few days in the Rio Grande Valley where it was already spring. I always hated to return home to winter, but at least we still had spring to look forward to here.
March is far from warm here in the foothills. We may have a day or two that tell us spring is coming, but we also receive our greatest amount of snow during March storms. It is not until April that we begin to “see” spring with new happenings every day.
This is a good time to watch for developing buds. The big sticky buds of cottonwoods and the slightly smaller buds of the narrow-leaved cottonwoods will shed their outer scale that covers the buds all winter to allow their flowers to expand. Willows will shove off their single dunce cap-shaped bud scale to allow their “pussy” willows to appear and dangle in the spring breezes. Ponderosa pines will have their needles washed by wet spring snow and will once more appear dark green instead of black. Their buds too will develop at the tip of every stem where this year’s new growth and red flowers will soon appear.
I like to visit the small lakes and creek valleys in the spring to see the alder and birches when they bloom. The alders have long yellow catkins that dangle in the breeze. It always looks like some merchant was having a tag sale.
As more and more open waters appear, more birds also return. Earliest are the waterfowl. This is a good time to visit the small farm ponds east of Denver where you can often see many of the ducks up quite close. Near such ponds there are often trees and shrubbery where the red-winged blackbirds return and sing loudly to announce their arrival even though they may have spent the winter nearby.
Song sparrows often winter in some nearby swamp or thicket but seldom sing so no one knows they are here. There is usually at least one pair near the entrance to Evergreen Lake and another one along Parmalee Gulch because they nest in both of these areas. They start to sing usually in March when the lengthening days tell them spring is coming.
Their first attempts are a whisper as if they are unable to remember the song. When they have practiced a bit, you will hear their full song loud and clear as they defend a territory in which they will hopefully nest. The song sparrow’s song usually starts with three loud notes and then goes into a jumble of notes that ends in a bubbling trill.
Song sparrows are the most widespread of any of the sparrows. Their range spreads from the Atlantic coast to California, northward into much of Canada, Alaska and south into part of Mexico.
Song sparrows are white and deep reddish brown. The breast streaks come together to form a large central cluster. They have an exceptionally long tail that they wag up and down. I learned to know song sparrows well as a child and it has always been helpful to be able to use them as a means of comparison when learning new sparrow songs.
Song sparrows often have a personal variation of a note in their song, and to those who have a good musical ear, such birds are identifiable as individuals. This is a sparrow that everyone should know for at least two pairs nest at Evergreen Lake every year. They are already beginning to sing, so this is a good time to learn this bird and its song.