Minstrel of the islands

One weekend in early spring I was at Wahnuhke alone. A load of firewood delivered the previous fall needed stacking and that was a good excuse for me to spend time there. It was windy and raw, but good weather for physical work.

As I toiled away among the juniper bushes, I became aware of a bird flitting through the low branches and, being a birder, wondered what it was as the usual migrations were still weeks away. The answer came soon. From the top of a cedar nearby came the familiar happy call of a song sparrow.

“You’re here already?” I may have said aloud. Despite the brisk wind and scudding clouds, this intrepid little bird — head tipped back and open bill trilling forth — was in residence and proclaiming it to the island as it declared its territory and sought a mate.

Song sparrows, as a species, are all over North America. There are between 25 and 52 subspecies. They range from the warm southlands of this continent to the raw climate of the Aleutian Islands, proof they are both adaptable and hardy. No wonder they seem to love nesting in the sparse protection of scrubby junipers and cedars among the Georgian Bay islands.

At the Bay their nests might be on the ground or close to it in a low bush or tree branches. They may have as many as three broods each year, which is good to know as I’m sure their nests are often raided by other wildlife like mink, snakes, or larger predatory birds like gulls. Their food includes seeds, berries, insects and, in some locations, they’ll get their feet wet going after shallow water crustaceans.

My curiosity about birds developed at the age of six when we lived for a year almost in the country outside of Ottawa. There were colourful goldfinches and orioles, melodious warblers and robins of course, red winged blackbirds, and the usual house sparrows and starlings. In spring and summer I would hide in a sumac grove near our house and watch the birds around me. Children’s books about birds were my birthday presents. I became a birder.

At the Bay that interest expanded into learning about the habits and life cycles of any and all species, both those that nested locally and the migrants on their way through. Flycatchers and phoebes, woodpeckers and flickers, brown thrashers, red eyed vireos, myrtle and yellow warblers, plus terns and seagulls, ducks and geese. I’ve been fascinated by and loved them all.

But the little striped-breasted dull brown song sparrow that lives in the wind blown shrubbery of the islands and sings joyously about it, remains my favourite. Now, even when I only hear its song on my “electronic bird book”, I’m carried back to the islands and imagine being serenaded from the top of a white cedar tree.

4 thoughts on “Minstrel of the islands

  1. Hi Ritchie. I love birds as well and find it so relaxing to watch them and listen to their chirping. I have feeders in my yard so attract many beautiful feathered friends.
    This year I have had the pleasure of keeping the Baltimore Oriole interested in the grape jelly I leave out. Usually I tempt them with an orange, but that doesn’t make them stay; the grape jelly does though.
    Wrens, hummingbirds, cardinals, Goldfinch, house finch, and Rose Breasted Grosbeak are also frequenters of my feeders.All so beautiful to watch!
    Sometimes it’s these little things in life that make and keep us happy.
    Thanks for sharing your story about your favourite bird, the song sparrow.


  2. Wendy: Thanks for your comments. Sounds like you’re having a bumper year with bird varieties. A red-breasted grosbeak! Wow, I haven’t seen one of those in years. — Ritchie


  3. Lovely, Dick! At the Bay now in mid-August, about the only bird we hear, apart from loons, is the intrepid little song sparrow, singing his cheerful song unexpectedly at any hour of the day.


  4. Since I’m a birder too, I appreciated this writing. Did not know the song sparrow sometimes nested in juniper bushes. That’s dangerous! As a young camper, we used juniper bushes as mattresses when sleeping outside. That is, after we checked snakes weren’t hidden in them! Delightful column!
    A note to your reader Wendy Scott…our Baltimore Orioles are at our feeder night and day now. They must be getting ready for an early migration which saddens me because they are so beautiful. Also means summer is coming to a close.


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