Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

March 26, 1922. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 57(23=26): 3-W.

Delightful Meeting With Flock of Harris Sparrows

By Sandy Griswold.

Out on the Platte for a day last week, we were more than delighted with the sight of several pairs of the Harris sparrow, one of the prettiest of this interesting family, and quite unknown to most native students of this section of the country. At that, they are often, in special seasons, quite plentifully met with, especially in the waning winter days, and this spring seems to be one of these seasons.

We had our campfire built on a wooded point protruding far out into the rushing river just this side of the big bridge on beyond Valley, and a very advantageous spot it proved to be, for the earliest of our spring bird life seemed to be there in abundance. In our rambles we saw a number of flickers, including one red shafted, several cardinals, a veritable assembly of gold finches, chickadees, woodpeckers, juncos, meadow larks, song sparrows, red wing blackbirds, several sparrow hawks and millions of crows. But over and above all of these, were the Harris sparrows, quite a number of them, which we found on the cleared space of land back quite a ways from the river, among the brush piles and still standing low undergrowth.

Quite new to me were these birds and, of course, they afforded me much delight, for while I recognized them as a distinct species of the family, it had not been my good luck to encounter them very frequently.

In all my research back in my old Ohio stamping ground, I never saw a Harris sparrow, in fact, I never saw them anywhere but right here in Nebraska, although they are quite common in all our adjoining states.

The Harris sparrow is certainly an interesting bird. He is beautifully, but not gaudily attired, with a line of black splotches on his chest, a slender strand apparently holding them in place, and a head, the frontal prominence, and the throat, set in rich ebony. His saddle and larger tail feathers are a filmy shade of grayish brown, and this is a mark that makes it easy to tell him from the fox sparrow, whom he greatly resembles in looks and habits, whose rump is a decided reddish brown. The feet, legs and back of the Harris are pinkish, and this tine gives him much the appearance of a small woodland coxcomb. At this early spring time the Harris is in his most heightened color, the whole top of the head, chin and throat being of a glossy, velvety black.

Far Northern Bird.

This bird is a far-northern sojourner and usually are early spring arrivals here, and yet at that they some times winter here, and in the fall do not bid us good by until late in November or early December.

The Harris is more like the white throated sparrow than any of their other relatives, and the white throated is another member of the family never found here in very great numbers. The Harris likes the thickets and briery clumps, old brush-heaps and ragged undergrowth and all of those I saw on Friday last, jumped from piles of brush. Sometimes I approached within a foot of these piles before they would catapult headlong from the covert and squeaking querulously, go dashing for the nearest hiding place within reach.

I have seen Harris sparrows in the deep woods up north of Florence on the old River Road, but not very frequently, and always, however, where the underbrush was thick and plentiful. You will seldom find one in the open. They are extremely diffident about parading themselves, shyly loitering about the thickest windrows, hedges and among the piles of brush in clearings adjoining woodlands. They are just as precautionary, too, as they are wary, and it isn't often they stroll or wing themselves far from their chosen haunts of thicket and copse, and when they do, the slightest unusual sound or object will send them scuttling hurriedly, with angry chirps of protest, to the nearest coverts.

Exceedingly Provoking.

They are exceedingly provoking in their penchant to keep you from studying them, and it is not very often you get to look one square in the face. You will find them, tail toward you, most of the time when you stumble upon them. However, I have often had more good full views of them, but never more so than last week out on the Platte. One, in particular, I caught standing, straight as a shoulder, on the top of a huge pile of brush, with his tail pointing upward, and his crest plumes erect, the very picture of wild alertness and caution. He certainly made a beautiful picture, and, withal a rare one.

And better still, I heard this fellow thrill a few notes of his favorite springtime roundelay, something like the sweet tremolo of the white-throat, who was my favorite operatic star among the Adirondacks, where I spent many season in my younger days. He was still perched on the brush heap, but, after getting rid of those first few undulatory notes, there was little in the balance of his melodious expression, to remind me of the precious whitethroat, who has few rivals. This fellow, while his brief chanson was a genuine treat, had in none of his attempted trills that sweet, rhythmic triad of my dear little friend of the deer parks among the Adirondacks. Yet, withal, it was as mellifluous and dear as could be, and it will be many a long day ere its tender cadences leave my hearing.

Another Queer Thing.

There is another queer thing about the Harris sparrow, possibly the queerest of them all. They are plentiful during both their vernal and autumnal migrations over in our sister state, Missouri, but as familiar as they are even there, they are a deep enigma to most consistent of bird students over there, as they have never been able to locate a single nest, and know literally nothing about their breeding habits. As I remarked before they are far northern breeders - like the pine grosbeak - and a favorite region is among the rocky tarns of Ungava, way up in the lonely arctic region. I d not know of any bird friend who ever saw the nest of a Harris sparrow, and the truth is, but few of our most indefatigable and persistent naturalists - have had this wonderful experience. In fact I have never known of any man who ever saw one of this mystic bird's nests.

There is also much confusion about the migratory habits of this common sparrow, although so common in many sections of the midwest. It has been a a deep study for all our erudite scientists since the days of the beloved Audubon and Wilson, Thoreau, Cuvier and others, clear down to the Rev. W.J. Long. Ernest Seaton, myself and the late Theodore Roosevelt and John Burroughs, and yet none of them were able, nor none of them are now, able to give us any light on this subject.

Related Images: