Cold season browns

Cold season browns

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Who can talk about native plant landscaping without mentioning color? The dominant colors this time of year are the browns. The browns of native restorations are varied and beautiful, and they attract a multitude of bird species including sparrows because they offer food, shelter and camouflage.

The sparrows themselves are at least half brown and, of course, not a solid brown but the mixture of shades and hues. Many grassland birds, particularly sparrows, are camouflage specialists. Grasses, forbs, sedges, other wetland plants and fallen leaves, all browned by late autumn, cloak sparrows to the point of fooling the eyes of hawks and owls who need not key on movement.

Some sparrow species forage in groups, and this confuses predators into thinking a breeze is stirring the fallen leaves or foliage. If the predator discerns that he is, in fact, looking at a group of feeding sparrows, then where on earth does he pinpoint his attack if everything in his focus appears to be moving? Add to this that if he attacks the area, the sparrows will scramble to cover by foot or short flight, or leave the area in rapid flight. An explosion of rapidly dispersing sparrows gives an optical illusion due to their striped head and body markings similar to the effect a bolting herd of zebras has on a chasing lion. The lion sees a mass of moving stripes, making it tough to grab an individual zebra.

If you have a somewhat dense native ground cover in your yard or business area, you are helping grassland birds such as native sparrows. Please feel good about this. Though you are saint and Santa, you may never see the recipients of your gift in winter because your gift in large part is concealment. Some saints/Santas, however, miss very few feathers, with binoculars in hand and stealth in movement. They peruse the foliage for avian eye candy and seldom end a peering session visually hungry. This is only achieved, though, after years of observing nature and learning how to look at a landscape and seeing living things that don’t want to be seen.

But when it comes to sparrow watching, there is a group of birds that drive even the best birdwatchers goofy with frustration. This assembly of sight denyers are the clump potatoes, those endearing secretive sparrows that use clumps of grass or sedge for physical and visual shields. The Ammodramus sparrows are the masters of clump potato behavior as they scurry among and into grass and sedge clumps like mice. The Ammodramus group is represented by the Bairds, Henslows, Grasshopper, LeContes, sharp-tailed and seaside sparrows.

The LeContes and sharp-tailed sparrows are the best at mousie movements. They’ve been observed along Chicago’s lakefront during migration moving through mowed grass like little snakes and becoming totally concealed under small clumps of dandelions. The LeContes breeds from mid-Wisconsin north up into southern and northwest Canada, nesting in wet, grassy areas and marsh edges. The sharp-tailed sparrow breeds in the Dakotas and into a portion of southern, mid- and northwest Canada, nesting in wet, grassy areas in salt marshes and lake shores. Both of these species use our local restored landscapes, whether preserves, yards or businesses, during migration, but consider yourself a visual marksman if you spot one. They blend in well among dormant season prairie grasses because both sparrows have a bright, buffy orange eyebrow and chest. Yes, there are yellows, reds and oranges in dormant season native plant colors, but all of them have a discernible degree of brown which, as far as I can see, paints them as a cold season brown.

Sparrow species that may live in or visit your native landscape frequently all winter are the song, field, American tree and the white-throated sparrows. You may attract field and American tree sparrows only if you’re close to or in a rural setting.

The white-throated and the American tree sparrow are migrants from the north. The white-throated sparrow breeds in northern Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, northern New England and most of Canada, excluding the far northwest and Alaska. The white-throated sparrow nests in thick, brushy undergrowth. You won’t find the American tree sparrow breeding until you reach the tundra’s edge, where they nest in open, grassy areas, usually in a clump of sedge or grass. They like to perch in tundra trees, which are short due to the extreme weather. By the way, how many American tree sparrows does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One, but it takes three tundra trees tied end to end to act as the bird’s ladder perch.

Last month, I watched a white-throated sparrow on the patio, and as it slipped into my prairie restoration like a ghost into a house, I thought I could hear the spirit of the prairie speaking to my mind. I thought I heard it say, “You will not find this bird or his spirit with your eyes in this house of brown. Be it that this house and this bird are unstriking, and therein lies the genius.” To lull with the dull is one of the most tried and true laws of nature.

There are three things certain in life—death, taxes, and everything that isn’t brown will eventually turn brown. Blending in is the secret of life, and brown is the color of the soul.

Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associate’s degree in science and a bachelor’s in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.

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