October bird of month

The large sparrow migrates through Kittitas County in the fall.

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This large sparrow (about the size of a house sparrow) is found this time of year migrating through Kittitas County on it’s way to the Southwest of the U.S. or as far south as central Mexico. The adults are handsome birds, with clear grayish breasts and a distinctive crown striped with black and white, which can get quite puffy if the bird is excited.

The first-year birds are more brown, with head stripes of dark or rusty brown and buff. This sparrow is common in the West, and often migrates in large flocks, which helps to protect them from predators — the “many eyes, early warning” hypothesis of the advantage of flocking behavior.

This sparrow is found in bush and woodland edge habitat, and often prefers to feed within 10 feet of safe cover like shrubs, high grass, or small trees. During most of the year, they eat seeds, but during the breeding season and when feeding young, their diet is mostly insects. When looking for food on the ground, they will sometimes use an interesting technique called the “double scratch” — while the body remains stationary, a slight hop allows the feet to reach forward together, then sweep backward, kicking debris out from underneath the bird to reveal food items.

Just as quickly the bird returns to a normal standing position, and then can repeat the motion several times. This behavior is not often seen in other birds (the Spotted Towhee being a notable exception),but apparently it works well for these guys! They will also visit feeders for seed.

White-crowned Sparrows are monogamous through the breeding season, with the male vigorously defending the territory, and the female doing all of the nest building and incubation of eggs. The nest is a well-lined cup in bushes near the ground, and eggs are a pale blue-green with dark spots. The development of song in these sparrows is quite well known, having been the “model bird” for intensive study over the years. The young males learn their songs not just from their fathers, but also from other male White-crowns in the general vicinity of their nest.

The song passes through several stages of development, and by adulthood each male ends up with one or maybe two songs that closely match that of other males in the neighborhood. These specific songs of neighbors in a group are called dialects, and the males use these to distinguish their neighbors from strangers. A male whose territory straddles a border between two dialects may become “bilingual” — learning to sing both dialects to keep the peace!

Want to learn more? You can go to the National Audubon website at Audubon.org for a complete catalog of birds, including maps of species locations throughout the year. Or,check out our website at KittitasAudubon.org and come to our meetings, which are held most months on the third Thursday at 7 p.m. October and November 2021 meetings will be available on Zoom; e-mail kittitasaudubon@hotmail.com for more information.

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