Today we are going to take a break from IBA event posts and join Nate again to talk about another North American grassland bird – this time the Baird’s Sparrow.
The Baird’s Sparrow is a rare sight during the summer but their song is an iconic staple of the sounds of a prairie summer. Baird’s Sparrows are a true grassland species, hunting prey and avoiding predators by moving swiftly through the grass. Picture that iconic scene of a person running away from a tiger in the tall grass, except the person is a grasshopper, the tiger is a sparrow, and the grass is 2 feet tall. These birds will often build their nests in small depressions such as hoof prints and are more tolerant of agricultural livestock habitats compared to some of the other grassland bird species.
I’m not going to lie to you, Baird’s Sparrows can be pretty tricky to tell apart just by looking at them. They have many similarities to other grassland sparrows and be easily confused with Nelson’s and LeConte’s Sparrows. Look for the very light brown eyebrow streak and a ‘Nike swoosh’-like chinstrap of the same colour that creates a bland collar area. Along the cheek area are a number of white and dark brown splotches which resemble moustache stripes. The collar and breast are separated by a dark brown streaky necklace that continues down to border the pale-yellow breast area. Their head is quite flattened on the top that gradually narrows into the beak. The pleasant song of the Baird’s Sparrow has a series of 3-5 descending ‘tinkly’ notes, finishing with a trill that sounds similar to a spring-loaded doorstopper being flicked. Identification by sound, rather than sight, might be your go-to for Baird’s Sparrows!
These birds breed in the prairie regions of North America and can be found, or more likely heard, in the southwest corner of Manitoba. Little is known about their wintering range but a number of repeat mist net captures in Arizona over 3 years and further studies support overwintering in the Chihuahuan desert. There are often several pairs per an area of good habitat so interspecies competition is expected. Despite habitat crossover with other grassland bird species, there is little evidence of conflicts between different species (intraspecific competition). These fellas like to stay low to the ground, but the males will get up on the tallest piece of vegetation he can find and sing his little heart out to find his one love for the summer. Once paired, they will be partnered with their mate for the duration of that breeding season. The female will lay 4-5 pale gray eggs with brown splotches and can produce up to 2 broods per breeding season.
Between 1968 and 2015, Baird’s Sparrows saw a yearly population decline of 2.2%, accumulating to a 65% population decline in 47 years. These birds are currently listed as a species of special concern by COSEWIC and under the federal Species At Risk At (SARA) and listed as Endangered under Manitoba’s Endangered Species and Ecosystems Act. Several factors have influenced the decline of this bird including, urbanization, conversion to cropland and the suppression of prairie fires. As a destructive force it may seem confusing for the suppression of fire to be related to loss of habitat. Regularly burned areas reduce shrub growth and other un-desirable vegetation that is not suitable for grassland species such as the Baird’s Sparrow. Like the ‘phoenix rising from the ashes’, the regenerative growth from the burned vegetation brings Baird’s sparrows to the yard as well as other native grassland animals.
Author: Nathan “Nature Nate” Entz
Stay tuned next week for the last installment in Nate’s grassland bird series!