Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a little bird, conceived in the wild, and dedicated to the proposition that all birds are created equal.
Of course, none of that is true. This week’s featured creature, Lincoln’s sparrow, wasn’t brought forth from anywhere. It was here a long, long time before Europeans sailed across the pond.
Also, the Lincoln’s sparrow wasn’t named after our great 16th president, it was named after Thomas Lincoln.
And, no, not the father of Abraham Lincoln, but Thomas Lincoln, a friend of the great ornithologist, naturalist and artist John James Audubon. Actually, he was a friend of Audubon’s son.
However, Lincoln did accompany Audubon on an 1834 expedition where they discovered the bird. So that was like, what, nine score and five years ago?
Audubon first called the bird “Tom’s Finch.” Lincoln shot a bird that was unknown to the men in the expedition. The only one of that species to be collected.
You see, nowadays, ornithologists capture birds and band them for research purposes. Heck, some even get tiny radio transmitters.
But way back in the day, birds were killed so they could be studied.
The one thing that stands out on this bird is the well-outlined buffy submoustachial stripe that leads down to a wash of the same color across the chest. With many Lincoln’s sparrows, the wash extends down the sides as well. This wash, along with the fine stripes, gives the appearance of a bird wearing a beige pinstripe suit.
They have large gray eyebrows with brown and black stripes on the crowns. They also have a gray stripe atop the center of the head.
The Lincoln’s sparrow is a winter visitor over much of Oklahoma — pretty much everywhere but the Panhandle. They also winter over much of Texas, the Southeast, the Southwest and most of Mexico. They breed in much of the Rocky Mountains and most of Canada, eh!
Lincoln’s sparrows like cover, so thickets and overgrown fields are an ideal place to find them. They also like woodland edges, and I have seen them in roadside habitat. In secrecy, they skulk around in search of food.
During warmer months, Lincoln’s sparrows mostly eat a variety of insects such as flies, beetles, moths, caterpillars, ants and some spiders. In winter, they eat a variety of seeds. I read long ago that they will sometimes visit backyard feeders to eat seed that’s been spilled or scattered on the ground. However, in all the years I’ve fed birds, I never had one visit until about three weeks ago. It was odd, but a Lincoln’s sparrow and a field sparrow (future column) just showed up one afternoon and continued visiting for about a week. The Lincoln’s sparrow kicked back and forth on the ground, looking for seed. Millet was preferred by both sparrows.
Odds and ends
• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that female Lincoln’s sparrows are more attracted to males who sing to them on cold mornings. Ornithologists believe this may be due to the fact that males that brave the cold may make better mates.
One last thing
Before I go, right now is a good time to be out looking for warblers. Several species of warbler are in the area to breed, and many others are migrating through. Warblers are small and like to glean insects from tree branches.
One of the best ways to see them is to stand under oak trees and look up. Look to the tops of trees and watch for movement. Binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens will be needed to identify them. Right now, oaks and some other deciduous trees are producing flowers called catkins. You’ve probably seen the yellow and green dust from catkins on your vehicle. Look for warblers searching through these catkins for hidden insects.
And one more thing: If you noticed that many birds have disappeared from your feeders, don’t worry. That’s to be expected this time of year as winter birds are leaving and natural food sources — such as insects — are plentiful. Breeding season is upon us as well.
Mine went away for a bit, but quite a few returned when the weather turned cold again!
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.