Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The Song Sparrow

Teacher's Story

"He does not wear a Joseph's coat of many colors, smart and gay

His suit is Quaker brown and gray, with darker patches at his throat.

And yet of all the well-dressed throng, not one can sing so brave a song.

It makes the pride of looks appear a vain and foolish thing to hear

His 'Sweet, sweet, sweet, very merry cheer.'

A lofty place he does not love, he sits by choice and well at ease

In hedges and in little trees, that stretch their slender arms above

The meadow brook; and then he sings till all the field with pleasure rings;

And so he tells in every ear, that lowly homes to heaven are near

In 'Sweet, sweet, sweet, very merry cheer.' "

—Henry Van Dyke.

Children should commit to memory the poem from which the above stanzas were taken; seldom in literature have detailed accurate observation and poetry been so happily combined as in these verses. The lesson might begin in March when we are all listening eagerly for bird voices, and the children should be asked to look out for a little, brown bird which sings, "Sweet, sweet, sweet, very merry cheer," or, as Thoreau interprets it, "Maids! Maids! Maids! Hang on the teakettle, teakettle-ettle-ettle." In early childhood I learned to distinguish this sparrow by its "Teakettle" song. Besides this song, it has others quite as sweet; and when alarmed it utters a sharp "T'chink, t'chink."

The song sparrow prefers the neighborhood of brooks and ponds which are bordered with bushes, and also the hedges planted by nature along rail or other field fences, and it has a special liking for the shrubbery about gardens. Its movements and flight are very characteristic; it usually sits on the tip-top of a shrub or low tree when it sings, but when disturbed never rises in the air but drops into a low flight and plunges into a thicket with a defiant twitch of the tail which says plainly, "Find me if you can."

The color and markings of this bird are typical of the sparrows. The head is a warm brown with a gray streak along the center of the crown and one above each eye, with a dark line through the eye. The back is brown with darker streaks. The throat is white with a dark spot on either side; the breast is white spotted with brown with a large, dark blotch at its very center; this breast blotch distinguishes this bird from all other sparrows. The tail and wings are brown and without buff or white bars or other markings. The tail is long, rounded and very expressive of emotions, and makes the bird look more slender than the English sparrow.

The nest is usually placed on the ground or in low bushes not more than five feet from the ground; it varies much in both size and material; it is sometimes constructed of coarse weeds and grasses; and sometimes only fine grass is used. Sometimes it is lined with hair, and again, with fine grass; sometimes it is deep, but occasionally is shallow. The eggs have a whitish ground-color tinged with blue or green, but are so blotched and marked with brown that they are safe from observation of enemies. The nesting season begins in May, and there are usually three and sometimes four broods; but so far as I have observed, a nest is never used for two consecutive broods. The song sparrow stays with us in New York State very late in the fall, and a few stay in sheltered places all winter. The quality in this bird which endears him to us all is the spirit of song which stays with him; his sweet trill may be heard almost any month of the year, and he has a charming habit of singing in his dreams, if sudden noise disturbs his slumber.

The song sparrow is not only the dearest of little neighbors, but it also works lustily for our good and for its own food at the same time. It destroys cutworms, plant-lice, caterpillars, canker-worms, ground beetles, grasshoppers and flies; in winter it destroys thousands of weed seeds, which otherwise would surely plant themselves to our undoing. Every boy and girl should take great pains to drive away stray cats and to teach the family puss not to meddle with birds; for cats are the worst of all the song sparrow's enemies, destroying thousands of its nestlings every year.

Lesson XXI

The Song Sparrow

Leading thought—The beautiful song of this sparrow is heard earlier in the spring than the notes of bluebird or robin. The dark blotch in the center of its speckled breast distinguishes this sparrow from all others; it is very beneficial and should be protected from cats.

Methods—All the observations of the song sparrow must be made in the field, and they are easily made because the bird builds near houses, in gardens, and in the shrubbery. Poetry and other literature about the song sparrow should be given to the pupils to read or to memorize.


1. Have you noticed a little brown bird singing a very sweet song in the early spring? Did the song sound as if set to the words "Little Maid! Little Maid! Little Maid! Put on the teakettle, tea-kettle-ettle-ettle?"

2. Where was this bird when you heard him singing? How high was he perched above the ground? What other notes did you hear him utter?

3. Describe the colors and markings of the song sparrow on head, back, throat, breast, wings and tail. Is this bird as large as the English sparrow? What makes it look more slim?

4. How can you distinguish the song sparrow from the other sparrows? When disturbed does it fly up or down? How does it gesture with its tail as it disappears in the bushes?

5. Where and of what material does the song sparrow build its nest?

6. What colors and markings are on the eggs? Do you think these colors and markings are useful in concealing the eggs when the mother bird leaves the nest?

7. How late in the season do you see the song sparrows and hear their songs?

8. How can we protect these charming little birds and induce them to build near our houses?

9. What is the food of the song sparrows and how do they benefit our fields and gardens?

Supplementary reading—Our Birds and Their Nestlings, Walker, pp. 43, 49, 50, 52; Second Book of Birds, Miller, p. 80; Birds of Song and Story, Grinnell, p. 73; The Song Sparrow, Van Dyke; Birds Through an Opera Glass, Merriam, p. 66; Field Book of Wild Birds, Mathews, p. 109; Wild Life, Ingersoll, p. 144; Audubon Leaflet No. 31.

The Sing-Away Bird

Have you ever heard of the Sing-away bird,

That sings where the Runaway River

Runs down with its rills from the bald-headed hills

That stand in the sunshine and shiver?

"Oh, sing! sing-away! sing-away!"

How the pines and the birches are stirred

By the trill of the Sing-away bird!

And the bald-headed hills, with their rocks and their rills,

To the tune of his rapture are ringing;

And their faces grow young, all the gray mists among,

While the forests break forth into singing.

"Oh sing! sing-away! sing-away!"

And the river runs singing along;

And the flying winds catch up the song.

'T was a white-throated sparrow, that sped a light arrow

Of song from his musical quiver,

And it pierced with its spell every valley and dell

On the banks of the Runaway River.

"Oh, sing! sing-away! sing-away!"

The song of the wild singer had

The sound of a soul that is glad.

—Lucy Larcom.

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