BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: The here today, gone tomorrow Harris's sparrow
I stopped at the Becida Bar and Grill in downtown Becida recently for Taco Tuesday. Tasty tacos, a bowl of chips and salsa and great conversation. Some friends and neighbors were there and it wasn't long and we were all talking about the welcome spring weather, wild birds, and other species of wildlife. One friend asked me, "What are ya gonna write about this week?"
"Hmmm", I pondered, "I'm not sure yet. Have any ideas?"
"Well", he answered, "ya wrote about hummingbirds last time, so ya can't write about them again."
Another friend and his wife chimed in and recounted the species of birds that have been showing up at their feeders as of late. One notable avian visitor was none other than the Harris's sparrow. My friend described the bird perfectly—big, black bib, black head . . . everything. In fact, had he not mentioned the species name first, I would've known immediately by his description alone that he was describing North America's largest sparrow, the Harris's sparrow.
So Bruce and Janie? Thanks for the bird of the week.
As mentioned, the Harris's sparrow is this continent's biggest sparrow. Sparrows belong to a large and diverse group of birds that occupy a variety of habitats across North America. Some species are rare, others are very common, and some, like the Harris's sparrow, are only here for a short time as they migrate through Minnesota on their way to and from the Far North in northern Canada, the only place on earth where they breed and nest in open tundra mixed with pine, alder, and willow. Winters are spent in the southern Great Plains.
A striking looking sparrow, Harris's sparrows have the distinction of looking, well, distinct from other members of the sparrow family. Few other wild birds have the unique markings that are diagnostic of the species—pink colored bill, black/blotched bib, a black crown, long tail and streaked sides. If one has the need to relate the pink bill to anything, no other pink-billed sparrow has streaked sides.
Even so endowed with such markings, there are a couple of other species of wild birds that resemble the Harris's sparrow. A quick look at your favorite field guide shows that the Lapland longspur, as well as the house sparrow, are close lookalikes. A handful of other dark-headed, bibbed birds also occur in Minnesota, chief among them the black-capped chickadee.
And yet it is the Harris's sparrow that shows up only rarely—a sort of here today, gone tomorrow kind of bird. Indeed, there are many species that annually migrate through our state on their way to more northerly breeding grounds. For the Harris's sparrow and some others, Minnesota is merely a layover, a feeding and resting area, as the birds enjoy a stopover to replenish depleted fat reserves on the second leg of their long journeys northward.
In doing a little research about this fascinating and handsome species of sparrow that I have little experience with, I found it especially interesting learning about the role a Harris's sparrow's black bib plays in the social order of the species.
With Harris's sparrows, the black bib is recognized by other Harris's sparrows as a symbol of strength and dominance. To test this hypothesis, a clever research project was developed and conducted by biologists postulating that the black bib had something to do with dominance amongst flocks of Harris's sparrows.
The researchers surmised that the dark bib of older male Harris's sparrows was the possible reason for their perceived dominance by other less endowed birds and thus why they had better access to food sources. Capturing a few younger birds, they dyed their throat feathers black to create artificial bibs and then turned them loose. The researchers discovered that the youngsters with their fake black bibs quickly climbed the ranks of the flock hierarchy and became dominant themselves.
Harris's sparrows are one of Minnesota's many migratory surprises that show up from time to time at our feeders during spring and fall migrations. To observe one of these remarkable sparrows on their long journey to and from northern Canada is a treat I hope everyone can experience at least once as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.