Song Sparrows Have Their Own Way of Raising Families

In some bird species the male helps in nest building, but that is not so among Song Sparrows; the female alone builds the final nest, though sometimes the male is spotted carrying nesting material about. We say "final nest," because several nests may be begun and abandoned before the last one is finished. Probably this serves two purposes:

  1. building the early nests provides practice
  2. when a predator such as a snake or a skunk enters the territory, maybe they will be distracted by the unused nests

Song Sparrows build low nests; they may be actually on the ground, to as high as about four feet up in dense shrubs or high weeds. The nests consist mostly of grass blades interwoven with a few leaves and tough fibers.

When the nest is finished, the female begins laying one egg per day until her clutch, or nest of eggs, is complete -- typically with three to six eggs. The eggs are greenish-white and heavily speckled or blotched with reddish brown. In some bird species the male helps in incubation, or even does it himself entirely, but, again, not among Song Sparrows; the female does all the incubation. At least during this period the male stops his pouncing.

During the incubation period, which lasts about twelve days, typically about every half hour the female leaves the nest for five to ten minutes, to feed and move about. Very often it appears that the male times her rests for her. The male will cease his territory-defending singing, fly to within a few yards of the nest, sing loudly, and the female takes this to mean that she should take a rest. Other times the female leaves the nest without any cue from the male and, sometimes, the male appears to insist on a rest, but the female may respond with a trill-call that obviously says, "Don't bother me... !"

In some bird species, freshly hatched young can run about and find their own food within moments of breaking from their shells. Song Sparrow nestlings, however, are born blind, practically naked, and very dependent on their parents for food. At this stage, finally the male shares in the duties, for he feeds the nestlings along with the female. Main foods collected are insects such as grubs, caterpillars, flies, and grasshoppers. The nestlings' insect diet is very different from the seed diet they'll prefer as adults, but for a newly hatched bird a juicy caterpillar is easier to digest, and richer in nutrients, than crabgrass seeds.

After three or four days of life the nestlings open their eyes. At the age of seven days they are coordinated enough to stretch their wings, scratch their heads, yawn, and climb to the nest's rim. At the age of eight and nine days they begin fluttering and fanning their wings, and shaking their bodies, giving the impression that they can hardly wait to leave their nest. As early as the age of seven days, nestlings can often survive if they fall from their nest. The maximum time stayed in the nest is about fourteen days.

Once on the ground, the young birds continue to be fed by their parents until the age of 28 to 80 days; during this time they are referred to as fledglings. During the latter days of the fledgling period, the adults begin losing interest in constantly taking care of the fledglings, but the fledglings, of course, rather like the idea of having food plopped into their mouths without any effort on their part.

In fact, it is simply hilarious to watch the family during this weaning process. As hard as one tries to avoid interpreting human-like feelings among birds, one sees what appears to be moments when the adults "lose their tempers" with the "lazy kids," and sometimes it even appears that the adults "feel guilty" after temper flare-ups, and go off to get a worm or bug to "make up."

After raising a first brood and sending the fledglings off on their own, the adults may produce a second, third, and even fourth brood; the farther south and the longer the summers, the greater the number of broods.

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