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Small bird creates a mystery, causes a backyard stir

Suezette was first to notice an unfamiliar sound coming from our overgrown garden. It was a bird, certainly, but not one I recognized.

The situation strongly suggested a species of sparrow. Excessive rainfall — I figure about 30 inches since Memorial Day — caused repeated flooding and prompted rank vegetative growth, including weeds.

The weeds have produced seeds.

This is ominous for next year's garden, of course, but it has produced a bonanza for migrating birds.

I was pretty sure the sound we heard didn't come from one of our resident sparrows. These are vocal birds, of course, but their noises are familiar: the melodic call of the song sparrow, the sharp chipping sound that gives the chipping sparrow its name, the insect-like buzzing of the clay-colored sparrow. The calls of the occasional summer stragglers, including vesper sparrows and lark sparrows, were easy enough to rule out, too, for they were out of season if not out of range.

And so the sound must have been made by one of the sparrow migrants. Or perhaps by one of the sparrow clan that don't bear the name of sparrow.

These would be birds such as dark-eyed juncos, common redpolls and goldfinches.

None of these qualified, however, because the goldfinches have a distinctive call note. They are also not at all shy.

Juncos are conspicuous birds, as well, flashing white outer tail feathers as they fly away chittering and whistling.

Likewise redpolls make a distinctive sound. What's more, they are conspicuous birds, if only because they are light-colored and show up against the darker background of fall colors. Plus, it's early for redpolls. They generally don't show up in big numbers until after Thanksgiving.

This left one obvious candidate, fox sparrow, a fairly common migrant here. The trouble is that fox sparrows are large and quite brightly rust in color.

The suspect bird showed none of this.

Indeed, it was extraordinarily hard to spot, to observe and hence to recognize.

A closer look

Two things stood out about the bird, once I got the glass on it. One was its size. The suspect was a smallish sparrow, not as small as a goldfinch but noticeably smaller than a song sparrow and much smaller than the ordinarily robust fox sparrow.

Besides, Suezette immediately rejected the idea that it might be a fox sparrow. We've had them in other years, she insisted, and this bird was entirely unfamiliar.

She was right about that.

Her stubborn insistence that this was something new sent me back out to the garden, more determined than ever to identify the stranger and add it to the yard list.

So a close examination of a succession of these birds produced a kind of pattern. Secretive we have already established. Smallish we have observed.

Close examination suggested a hint of rust on the top of the head. More prominent, though, were stripes along the sides of the breast. One bird even displayed a spot at the center of its breast.

This field mark briefly led me astray.

A central breast spot is a mark of the song sparrow.

This was no song sparrow, I was convinced, however. Two small. Too public in its behavior. Too late in the year.

At last the solution to the puzzle occurred to me.

The suspect bird could only be a Lincoln's sparrow, I realized. The field marks matched. So did the behavior. So did the noise it made.

So did the bird books when I went off to consult them. One even conveniently suggested that Lincoln's and song sparrows could be confused.

In hindsight I realize that I was initially misled because the suspect bird did not match my preconceptions about Lincoln's sparrows, which I encountered only a handful of times before this last week. I associated them with wet spaces, because this is the type of habitat to which field guides confine Lincoln's sparrow. Plus, that is the type of habitat where I previously had seen them.

My garden has been soggy all summer, but it doesn't qualify as a wetland.

The name

Once confident that I had recognized the bird, I set out to find out more about Lincoln's sparrow. To my satisfaction, I found that the bird was discovered and described by John James Audubon. To my disappointment, however, it is not named for Abraham Lincoln, the president, but for Thomas Lincoln, Audubon's traveling companion on a trip to Labrador in 1833.

Lincoln's sparrow is ordinarily a species of wet woods, and it nests as close to Grand Forks as Beltrami County, Minn., where it has been found on breeding bird surveys. It also occurs in southeastern Manitoba. In general, however, it is a bird of higher latitudes and higher elevations than occur here.

Except in a weedy garden, where Lincoln's sparrow created a mystery and caused a stir as it moved from its northern nesting grounds to winter quarters in Texas, the lower Mississippi Valley and Mexico.

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