Vesper Sparrow, bird of mystery

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The Vesper Sparrow was named by the well-known late naturalist, John Burroughs, who thought that this sparrow sings more beautifully in the late evening amid advancing shadows.

Sometimes, it can be heard in the dead of night and occasionally the Vesper Sparrow delivers quite an elaborate flight song as it flutters upward to a height of 50 to 75 feet. It has been said by an elder ornithologist that what the Veery’s song is to the deep woods, the Vesper Sparrow is to the fields and pastures. However, it is becoming very difficult to hear this song in Kentucky, because of the diminishing numbers. As a matter of fact, the state breeding status of the Vesper Sparrow is currently endangered. Over the past several years, it was known to be breeding in Boone, Bourbon, Campbell, Franklin, Gallatin, Grant, Harrison, Kenton, Mercer, Nelson, Nicholas, Pendleton, Pulaski and Woodford counties, but this has been narrowed down to only Bourbon and Nicholas, and it’s been around 14 years since they have been found breeding even in those last two counties. The nesting in Kentucky occurred in May, June and July since two broods were quite common.

The Vesper Sparrow is a 6¼inch long bird with a 10 inch wide wingspan. A description would be that it is a fairly large and somewhat fat sparrow with a large head and short tail. It has a head pattern that is highlighted by bold eye rings and rusty patches on the shoulder of the wing. Striking white outer tail feathers are very noticeable in flight. When on the ground, the Vesper Sparrow has a shuffling gait, sometimes hopping and at other times running. It seems to walk with feet back and chest thrust forward. This is a very valuable bird to the farmer, because 90 percent of its summer food is injurious insects such as beetles, grasshoppers, cutworms, army worms, and other smooth caterpillars. The size of this sparrow’s territory depends entirely on the availability of food. They also practice a foraging technique called a double scratch whereby the body remains relatively stationary, then a slight hop allows the feet to reach far forward. Then by sweeping the feet backward, they kick debris out from underneath themselves, to reveal food items. Then just as quickly, the Vesper Sparrow returns forward to a normal standing position.

They breed from Cape Breton Island, southern Quebec, central Ontario, southern Saskatchewan, northeast Alberta, and southern British Columbia, south to North Carolina, central Missouri, Texas, Arizona and central eastern California. They winter from the southern part of their breeding range, south to southern Florida, the Gulf Coast and southern Mexico.

The Vesper Sparrow’s nest is ordinarily in a depression in the ground under cover of surrounding plants or in a grass tussock. It is built of dry grasses, weed stalks and rootlets and lined with finer grasses, rootlets and occasionally hair. The female lays commonly four, often five and sometimes three or six creamy white or pale greenish white smooth shelled eggs with a slight gloss. They are dotted, spotted, blotched or scrawled with one or more shades of brown or gray. The incubation is by the female, although the male may assist occasionally with incubation that will require 12 to 13 days, and two broods are quite common. When startled from the nest, the adults will use their entire body to entice any intruder away by fluttering along the ground with the white-bordered tail feathers spread conspicuously and dragging their wings, as if sorely wounded. They present a very tempting bait that would lead any intruder away.

So just because a bird species may be rare, that doesn’t mean that you will be unable to find and enjoy those birds that you haven’t seen before. It just means that each outing is even more exciting. The more you get out with nature, the better chance you have 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 2015 Vireos and Warblers Calendar, E-mail whbrownpelpls@aol.com, call 502-682-7711 or write 527 Main St., Shelbyville 40065.