What kind of sparrow sings like a grasshopper? Why, a grasshopper sparrow, of course. I was introduced to this little bird that sounds like an insect last weekend by my friend Michael. Michael volunteers at the Orland Grassland in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. His job is to count the grasshopper sparrows and the Henslow’s sparrows, among other species.
Here are links to youtube videos of each of these small birds.
Grasshopper sparrow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69HCm6JQcdg
Henslow’s sparrow: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3pFm_8gmIA
Now, you can see from the videos that these are not cardinals and blue jays, easily distinguished by their color. They aren’t eagles or hawks, either, raptors with enough charisma to make them popular school mascots. These are tiny, nearly nondescript, brown birds which live in the weedy grasslands of North America which were almost entirely plowed or mowed under in the last 200 years. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds website calls the grasshopper sparrow “furtive” and the Henslow’s sparrow “famously inconspicuous.” These are not birds which garner much attention, even in the birding world.
Yet Michael is tasked with counting these little brown birds. First, he has to wade through the wet grasses of this ecological restoration project, some of which are 6-ft. tall. Then he has to position himself to watch and wait for the sound of one of these birds amid all other sounds of the regenerating prairie. He may or may not catch a glimpse of the one who sings, but if he does, he records the data—when, where, how long. And at the end of his day, he submits his findings and they are passed along to the Cook County Forest Preserves, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Audubon Society, which have been working to return the land to what it once was, tall grass prairie.
The grasshopper sparrow and the Henslow’s sparrow, whose numbers have been greatly diminished by habitat loss, are considered indicator species by those working to restore the biodiversity of the area. If these two birds nest and breed in the patch of prairie surrounded by subdivisions and strip malls, and if their population increases as the restoration project matures, prairie promoters will celebrate. Many more bird species will multiply, and with them the native grasses, wildflowers, insects, small mammals, and coyotes which make a complete ecosystem. A paved trail on the perimeter will invite the respectful presence of human visitors. And Michael, and others like him, will have played a part in restoring a healthier relationship between humans and our home on earth.
We are all related, the grasshopper and the grasshopper sparrow, people and the prairie, the farmer who once tilled the soil and the volunteer who now patiently listens for evidence that the good ground is still able to support its native inhabitants. The earth and its life systems are remarkably resilient. May our delight in the gifts of nature be matched by our diligence in protecting the creatures, great and small, who sing their varied songs.
Photo credit: Orland Grassland website, http://fpdcc.com/orland-grassland/