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Squeezed

July 1, 1993

Squeezed

By Rod Myers, Naturalist

Wetlands are shrinking internationally, nationally and locally due to man’s disturbances. This fact hit home for me in an unusual way. Two swamp sparrows showed up beneath my bird feeder at the end of March. They also took advantage of my native habitat yard restoration and hung out in the pond area and other small assorted created wetland areas connected with the pond.

The swamp sparrow, Melospiza Georgiana, is a Northeastern and Midwestern bird that you can find as far north as mid-Canada, but you won’t find it as far south as southern Illinois during breeding season. I’ve seen swamp sparrows in the yard during spring and fall migration, but these two stayed for a week. Actually, one’s still here, and he’s claimed the area in my yard restoration, and he sings to announce his territory. In fact, he lets me know if he thinks I’m out on the patio too much; that’s when he’ll start giving his warning call.

I’ve had a couple other birders come to the yard to see him, and they’re amazed he’s set up territory. “The restoration is small,” said Scott Caring. “I’m not sure of the exact size requirement, but it’s usually much bigger than this.” Scott nearly stepped on the bird, not knowing it was hunkered down in clumps of sedge that bordered his trek to see a hole a fox had made in the yard trying to dig up a rodent two nights before.

As I write sitting on the patio, the swamp sparrow flies into the pussy willow momentarily, then down into the dead grass sedge clumps. He’s tolerating me; so far, no warning call. Oh, now he’s in the cord grass; he’s heading for the spillage under the bird feeder. A grackle on the feeder is causing a seed rain and stabbing wildly with its beak at the house sparrows that land too close to him.

“For the most part, birds are changing their behavior when dealing with habitat destruction and having to forcibly share their altered habitats with more and more people,” said Caring. “A swamp sparrow setting up territory in a wetland this small is unheard of. Another example is the state endangered clay-colored sparrows that nested in fir trees in the Bank One parking lot at State and Mulford back in the ’90s. These are Rockford examples of birds being squeezed by greedy developers who’ve destroyed more wetlands regionally than the last glacier created regionally.”

Plant it and they will come! This is a truism that rarely fails. I’m amazed by the diversity of wildlife attracted to my yard. This spring, another swamp thing has been slowing up—a red-winged blackbird, but he’s semi-regular; he hasn’t set up shop yet. During the second week of April on a warm, clear dusk, a woodcock dropped from the heavens to drink from the pond. It was the first time I’ve ever seen one in the yard.”

There was a chance that April 10 could have been the swamp sparrow’s last day in my yard. That’s the day Don Miller of Severson Dells Environmental Education Center and Kevin Kaltenbach, a driver for Federal Express, cleaned 90 percent of my yard restoration. First, Kevin weed-whipped the old growth; after that, he and Don raked the cuttings. Then Don mowed what was left; then they both raked again, leaving a huge pile of prairie savanna and wetland brown hay. This is great for sun-loving native plants that lay dormant during the cold season and now are ready to send up fresh greenery. Removing the thatch lets the soil heat up and helps desiccate cold-loving aliens that tolerate thatch shade. Prairie and savanna plants love the sun and warm soil, while thatch shade as well as other types of shade suppress them.

Don and Kevin’s actions were good for the plants, but it destroyed cover, removed leftover seeds and insects in larva and egg stages, all used or eaten by wildlife. I must admit the old growth looked mighty good before it was cut. The sun was really bleaching the plants; it was like a year’s growth of long, beautiful hair turned blond by 50 spring suns. This was an exceptional year; with the lack of average snow, the native plants escaped the usual compaction. I admit I was depressed after the prairie cut. That huge pile of golden thatch looked too much like a pile of my golden hair left on the barber’s floor in springs gone by.

It could have been my attractive blond restoration that convinced the swamp sparrow to stay. On April 10, though, I seriously thought the buzz meant bye-bye, swamp birdie. I thought for sure the next morning he’d be gone. The boys only left the immediate growth around the wetland area, just as I’d asked. “Well, they are a wetland bird,” said a friend on the phone the next morning as I watched for a glimpse of swamp thing. “But it’s so small,” I said. But size didn’t matter to the swamp sparrow because he showed himself at 8:13, and he’s been here every day since.

He has a lot of interspecies competition in that small wetland area the swamp sparrow calls his own. A pair of mallards dabble in and around the pond seven days a week. Mud-robbing robins are probing about, gathering the foundation of the nests. There is a large sedge clump we transplanted last year in a shallow pond that wasn’t stuck in deep enough. It looked like a huge mudball with grass growing out the top. The robins have stolen most of the mud from the ball, so now it looks like an eaten apple with just the core showing, and in this case, having a grassy moptop where the apple stem would be.

The swamp sparrow and the ducks seems pleased with all the mud in the yard wetland. Swamp sparrows have flatter beaks than most sparrows and like to probe in mud. Studies have shown they eat more arthropods than seeds. Studies have also shown that swamp sparrows will set up postage stamp-sized territories if they are in excellent habitat, and only if they are crowded by other swamp sparrows. I think my yard restoration has helped answer two questions this spring. Yes, habitat destruction is forcing wildlife to breed in unusual places. And yes, blond restorations have more fun.

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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