Welcome all, to the final post in our grassland blog post series! Today Nate talks about a most mysterious bird found in the prairies. The Grasshopper Sparrow! Is it a grasshopper? No. Is it a sparrow? Yes!
Mystery number one solved, we know that it is a bird (a surprise on a birding blog!). They feed primarily on grasshoppers which they get their namesake from so mystery number two solved! These feathered friends can be observed in the southern grasslands of Manitoba but good luck seeing them. They are very camouflaged and are often identified by their distinctive insect-like song. Wait, they sound like an insect too? Like a grasshopper! Mystery number three solved folks.
I would first like to get it out of the way that Grasshopper Sparrows do not look like grasshoppers at all. They do however look very similar to other grassland sparrow species such as the Baird’s Sparrow and the LeConte’s Sparrow. Grasshopper Sparrows have less facial, back and breast markings than these birds and have a prominent orange marking that connects that arches from the front of the eye to the back of the bill. Like the LeConte’s Sparrow, they have a black ‘ear-piece’ that extends backwards from their eye-line to the centre of their head. This marking is different from a LeConte’s Sparrow as it tapers downwards at the centre of the head and creates an “L” shape on the Grasshopper Sparrow instead of a more circular patch of the LeConte’s Sparrow. The Grasshopper Sparrow’s breast is buffy coloured and unstreaked while their back is streaked with a rusty grey and a yellow tinged shoulder.
As you will most likely be hearing this bird before you see it, let’s talk about its song that is sung by both males and females. It starts with a staccato and separated ‘tic-tack’ and is followed by an insect-like buzzing ‘tzeeeeeeee’. Amazingly, the Grasshopper Sparrow is one of the few sparrows in North America that have two different songs! And we’re not talking about a song and a call, I mean it has two different songs! The second song, which is only sung by the males in flight, is a series of sputtering and musical chips preceded by the original ‘tic-tack tzeeeee’.
As you can probably guess by now, this bird lives in grasslands. It can be found in a variety of grassy areas such as hayfields, overgrown pastures and prairies. It is less tolerant of areas with a high concentration of shrubs. They can be found foraging in areas of bare ground but usually like to have some dense grasses nearby to dip in for cover when needed. Pairs are seasonally monogamous, meaning they stick with one partner for the mating season and split up after raising their young. Females produce 3-7 eggs and will raise anywhere from 2-4 broods per season! This is doable with the short incubation period of 11-13 days and a nesting period of 6-9 days.
The grasshopper sparrow has experienced a steep population loss with an annual decline of 2.5% from 1966 to 2015 combining to a 72% loss according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. There are approximately 12 subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrows recognized with the Florida subspecies (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus) being highly endangered with a 68% chance of extinction. The A. s. pratensis subspecies found in Ontario and Quebec is listed as special concern under SARA and COSEWIC. The subspecies commonly found in Manitoba, the Western Grasshopper Sparrow (A. s. perpalldius), is not a species at risk. However, the Manitoba Conservation Data Centre currently has the Western Grasshopper Sparrow listed as vulnerable. Now that it’s our final blog post about grasslands and their importance to birds I’m sure you can guess the major threat to these birds. That’s right its habitat loss, mostly from conversion of pastures and hay fields to row-crops.
Grassland Bird Round-Up
While we have been keeping this grassland bird species at risk series upbeat, learning about species at risk can be quite a sad venture. The more we learn to appreciate these unique animals the more we realize just how much we, the human race, can damage their well-being. With this great power comes a great responsibility as we do have the resources and knowledge to help these critters out. The first step to changing this future is learning about species at risk and the problems they face. I am honoured to have been a part of that journey for you, the reader, and have learned my fair share as well by creating these blog posts. Until next time.
-Nathan (Nature Nate) Entz