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The Grasshopper Sparrow's habits, as well as its weak song notes are such that you are not likely to find this species of bird, unless you know how and where to look for them.
The song notes are pitched so high that many older people cannot hear it. However, in windy conditions, the song might be heard by an attentive listener at a distance of 250 feet, but a casual observer might pass within 10 feet of a singing Grasshopper Sparrow and be none the wiser.
Another reason, that this song might be overlooked is that, it sounds a lot like an insect. It is described as a long, insect-like buzz and is actually how the bird got its name. It is preceded by a couple of short preliminary notes. The long buzz is on one pitch, but a common variation is a broken jumble of squeaky notes.
This bird often sings at night as well as all day. This song can be heard in Kentucky from mid-April up into sometime in August.
It shuffles along on crouched legs and habitually uses this shuffle, when leaving the nest site, sort of like a mouse and never walks.
The Grasshopper Sparrow is very secretive and small – It is 5 inches long and has a 7.75-inch wingspan – with a large head, a large beak and a bold eye-ring that stands out. The lack of much of a forehead gives the head, a pointed look, but its short tail also gives it a somewhat stubby look.
A very few somewhat common birds, can be more easily overlooked than this small little sparrow. Unfortunately, the Grasshopper Sparrow is the No. 10 declining bird in America, with its numbers down 65 percent, according to a 40-year study by the National Audubon Society. Because it nests on the ground, the grassland habitat requirement, which is fast disappearing, has caused four other species to join this list of decliners.
The No. 1 declining bird in America is the Northern Bobwhite, with its numbers down 82 percent. No. 6 is the Eastern Meadowlark, down 72 percent; No. 8 is the Loggerhead Shrike, down 70 percent; No. 9 is the Field Sparrow, down 68%; and then there is the Grasshopper Sparrow at No. 10.
Several reasons for this decline are commercial, industrial and residential development, as well as the current practice in lots of farming operations of eliminating fencerows and pretty much growing crops from boundary to boundary.
Therefore, birds that nest on the ground don't have a place to raise a family.
This bird’s diet is very beneficial to the farming community in that 73 percent of it consists of insects, such as beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars, 25 percent weed seeds and 2 percent is miscellaneous grains.
The Grasshopper Sparrow breeds from Southern New Hampshire, Southern Ontario, Southern Wisconsin, North Dakota and Southeast British Columbia, South to Florida, the Greater Antilles and Southern Mexico. It winters from North Carolina, Southern Illinois, South Texas and Central California to Costa Rica.
They migrate mostly at night and are killed by a lot of the towers that invade airspace for a 100 feet or more on the top of a lot of our higher knob-like elevations.
They have been known to arrive in Kentucky as early as late March, but they become more numerous around the third week of April, with clutch completion the last third of May. It is a fairly common summer resident in Kentucky, where there is an abundance of dry habitat of native grassland, hayfields, meadows, reclaimed surface mines and any other similar habitat with grassy vegetation.
Most Grasshopper Sparrows head back south in late August or early September, but they have been seen as late as early November.
The nest is in a depression in the ground, with the rim typically level with or slightly above ground. It is always well concealed by a canopy of grasses and weeds and is commonly domed at the back. Orchard grass, clover, and alfalfa are favored surrounding plants.
It is built by the female out of dried grasses and is lined with fine grasses, rootlets and occasionally hair. The outside diameter is 4.5-5.5 inches, the height is 2 to 2.25 inches, the inside diameter is 2.5 to 3.25 inches, and the depth is 1.25 inches.
The female lays three to six – but commonly four or five – smooth-shelled, creamy-white eggs with a slight gloss. They are sparingly spotted and blotched with reddish browns and under-marked with shades of gray and purple. The markings are scattered over the entire egg or may be concentrated at the large end. Incubation is by the female alone for 12 to 13 days, with two broods.
When the adults approach the nest, they never fly directly to it. To even find a Grasshopper Sparrow nest, is considered to be a real triumph in field ornithology.
So get out this spring and summer in some good grassland habitat and search for this shy bird that sings somewhat like an insect. A suggestion for probably a good area to inhabit would be, over at Shakertown, a few miles east of Harrodsburg. There are several hundred acres of native grass habitat. Because of this magnificent effort, many of our declining ground nesting birds are making a remarkable comeback in Mercer County, in the Great Outdoors.
To read more columns about birds by Horace Brown, visit www.SentinelNews.com/recreation. Horace Brown is a civil/sanitary engineer, land surveyor and nature photographer and writer. To contact him or order a copy of Brown’s 2014 Eagles, Falcons, Hawks & Vultures Calendar, E-mail email@example.com, call 502-682-7711 or write 527 Main St., Shelbyville 40065.