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Flight Lines: Understated sparrows synonymous with prairie

Savannah sparrows constitute one of several similar-sounding grassland species. Keith Corliss

Every school kid growing up in North Dakota learns of our state bird, the Western meadow-lark (Sturnella neglecta). It’s a robust specimen of grassland habitats that, no doubt, our early settlers were quite familiar with. It would have been hard to miss the bird with its bright yellow breast, its wide, black, foppish necklace and a penchant for perching on fence posts.

It is its voice, however, that puts the Western meadowlark in the unmistakable category; its emphatic flutelike song, audible for great distances on treeless tracts.

Largely hidden among the wavy seas of grass and forbs, though, dwells a suite of birds with a tendency to remain hunkered down in the delicate network of prairie stems and leaves. I’m speaking of a group of grassland sparrows that, when they do sing, strike one as if the sound is emanating from some weird grasshopper or other bug. Even more frustrating, their songs share enough similarities to make telling them apart by ear very difficult, a practiced art in the least.

For this area, I would put seven species in this metaphorical sparrow corral. Five come from the genus ammodramus, one from passerculus, with one representative of the spizella genus.

Let’s start by separating clay-colored sparrow (spizella pallida) right off the bat. This one will never be in pure prairie grass. If there is one chokecherry tree (or similar shrub) in the middle of a field of grass, a clay-colored sparrow will have chosen it as a nest site. Its song is a short series of steady buzzy notes, somewhat reminiscent of a Bronx cheer, like someone is “giving you the raspberries.”

Henslow’s sparrow (ammodramus henslowii) can be carved out of this group fairly confidently, also. It’s a very rare bird around here, with only an occasional sighting now and then. But should you see (or hear) a small bird throwing its head back and singing an exceedingly short (less than a second) “tsi-lick,” you likely have a Henslow’s.

Savannah sparrows (passerculus sandwichensis) are everywhere, even in the ditches and wheat fields of Cass County, which makes it a convenient starting point for entering the realm of more difficult sparrow songs. Theirs is a three-parter consisting of a couple introductory ticks, a buzzy insect middle, and a short trill that drops sharply in pitch.

Tough to find in Cass but ubiquitous as close as Richland and Ransom counties is the grasshopper sparrow (ammodramus savannarum). Two short hiccup notes followed by a long, high-pitched, weak buzz mark the song of this bird.

Nelson’s sparrow (ammodramus nelson) is a species favoring thicker, taller, wetter grasses, sometimes even cattails. I call this one the “librarian sparrow” due to its song, a steady hissing “shhhhhhh.”

Another one favoring somewhat damper, thicker grasses is Le Conte’s sparrow (ammodramus lecontii). Here’s another one emitting an insect-like buzz but it begins and ends with a single weak “tick.”

That leaves Baird’s Sparrow (ammodramus bairdii), the darling of North Dakota birding, the one out-of-staters come for specifically to add to their coveted life lists. Don’t bother looking around here, one must be in quality prairie habitat as far west as at least Stutsman County before you have a chance to encounter its series of light descending notes followed by – you guessed it – an insect-like trill.

Notice I didn’t speak to the appearances of these birds at all. That’s because separating them even by sight requires some study and practice. None of them are in-your-face showy as, say, a Baltimore oriole. Instead, their appearance, like their preferred habitat, requires a more subtle appreciation, a finer, quieter approach.

As a way of illustrating, let me share a portion of a piece written by a Tennessean who recently attended the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington (N.D.): “Before this journey, I was drawn to the mountain woodlands … but this was before I met the unbroken prairies of North Dakota. I knew something deep down inside me was changing as I stood in those vast grasslands.”

So reflective of prairie landscapes are these subdued understated birds that I consider them steadfastly intertwined with their place, nearly a single organism. Just as a prairie wouldn’t be complete without Baird’s sparrow, a Baird’s sparrow outside of grasslands is just another bird. They need each other in intimate unseen ways to make the other whole.

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder and North Dakota Game and Fish volunteer instructor.

He is a corporate pilot for Forum Communications.