Imagining a new world sparrow brings about that old form, a brownish bird smaller than a robin, moving about in flocks; a bird mostly unnoticed and unheralded—not a bird often enthusiastically photographed, or one most people would go to great lengths to see. For those trying to keep track of sparrows, you could witness at least 20 different species in Wisconsin. For those keeping track of sparrows, the subtle variations in coloration, song, and habitat make for interesting study.
Take the Lincoln’s sparrow, for instance, with its overall buffy chest, light brown streaking fading to all white on the breast, a buffy mustache and eye ring, and gray eyebrow. None of these characteristics on its own necessarily makes a Lincoln’s sparrow, though a careful study of the combination of characteristics will reveal a Lincoln’s. The problem, at least for observers, is that the Lincoln’s sparrow rarely makes appearances unobstructed. When it does, the bird quickly drops to the ground at any appearance of a threat. Thus, the Lincoln’s sparrow is one of the more difficult sparrows to observe in Wisconsin.
Breeding pairs occur in northern Wisconsin, mostly in tamarack and spruce swamps. Nesting occurs on the ground in grass or sedge dominated areas. This habitat selection increases the difficulty of seeing this bird during a northern Wisconsin summer, as tamarack and spruce swamps can be incredibly difficult to access in non-winter months.
On these breeding grounds, researchers have discovered that females will select mates based on the quality of their song. Male song with more syllables and phrases, and song that is consistent and long, will heighten female activity compared to males with the opposite song characteristics.
These birds are migrating through southern Wisconsin now, and a week ago, Lincoln’s sparrows were spotted down Prairie Lane at Faville Grove Sanctuary. With the onset of freezing temperatures, Lincoln’s sparrows are actually considered neotropical migrants, making it all the way to southern Central America. At the same time, some birds on the northern edge of their wintering range will spend months in far southern Wisconsin.
Population indices of the Lincoln’s sparrow indicate a stable or increasing population, both continent-wide and in Wisconsin. Close to 1 million acres of tamarack and spruce swamp, and open bog areas exist in northern Wisconsin, providing ample habitat for Lincoln’s sparrows.
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward
Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar