The Song Sparrow is one of sixty North American members of a family called Emberizidae. About a third of them have occurred in the West Kootenay region. Some are seen only in migration; some are here only in the summer; and two can be seen in Nakusp year-round: the Dark-eyed Junco and the Song Sparrow.
Unlike the juncos, which run around on the lawns and are easily seen, the Song Sparrow has a more secretive nature. They are fairly common in the area, including right in town, but many people have never noticed them. If you have a nice thick hedge around your yard, you probably have a Song Sparrow. They are primarily ground feeders where they often scratch around in the leaf litter stirring up insects and grubs. Seeds also make up a significant part of their diet, particularly in winter.
Like many of the sparrows, identification can sometimes be a problem. Since they lack any bold, flashy field marks, more subtle characteristics must be noted. The Song Sparrow is brown and white and heavily streaked — a description that could fit a number of species. To make matters worse, the shade of brown in Song Sparrows is highly variable. In some individuals the colour is a very pale tan-brown; others are a reddish-brown; some are a dark chocolate-brown which in some light looks almost black!
In the bird pictured here you can see a narrow dark stripe behind the eye. Above that, there is a pale stripe and then another dark stripe. And finally a narrow pale stripe is visible in the centre of the crown. The darker stripes are all brown, the pale ones, grey. Another feature which may add in identification is the breast pattern. On most individuals there is a concentration of streaks in the centre of the breast giving the appearance of a large smudgy spot.
Once you become familiar with the species, behaviour and habits are also useful identification tools. Song Sparrows often sit with their tails raised (it is slightly raised in the picture here). In flight, their also raise and sometimes pump their tails as they move from one hiding place to another.
In spring, when the birds are singing, they are a bit easier to see. For maximum effect, they often abandon their secret hiding places and perch on top of a shrub, or in a small tree, and sing heartily. This affords the observer an opportunity to view them a little more closely. But at this time of year they are not likely to sit up and sing; they can be quite hard to spot. However, if you notice a small dark bird skulking around in your shrubs or hedges, have a closer look; it might be a Song Sparrow.