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Wildlife Wednesday: In praise of little brown birds
Sparrows aren't boring. Promise.
Did you notice after the hurricane rains in August that there were fewer birds at your feeder? Fewer beasts around? Or is it just us?
One theory I’ve heard is that with so many plants blooming and going to seed, there was plenty for birds to eat and no need to hang out around humans. What do you think?
So on October 4, when I heard my first white-crowned sparrow of the fall, I was happy. Welcome back, guys and gals!
Since then, they collect around the water dish, telling each other stories about their long flight south and swirling up into the creosote when the cottontail hops up.
These LBJs (birder for Little Brown Jobs) have just returned to southern California from Alaska! White-crowned sparrows that researchers have banded have been tracked flying 2,600 miles from Alaska—and they end up here. (Check out this migration dashboard; birds are still in the air.) These dapper sparrows, which weigh about as much as a slice of bread (that would be an ounce), fly for several weeks at night and stop during the day to eat. But not sleep, it turns out.
White-crowns are the lab rats of the avian world. Scientists have observed that they don’t sleep much as they fly night after night on their migration and aren’t the worse for it. If you keep them awake when they aren’t migrating, they are just as cranky and bumbling as a kid who stays up all night at a sleepover. How do they do it? Who knows?
These sparrows fly pretty fast and even are decent runners; they can keep a pace of one-third of a mile an hour on a treadmill without tiring. But—who makes a sparrow run on a treadmill?
Sometime in March or April, white-crowned sparrows get Zugenruhe, a useful German word that means restless and itchy to travel. The little birds bulk up and even grow their brains larger to navigate by magnetic fields and geomagnetic landmarks. Although these sparrows may leave at nearly the same time, they fly alone and not as part of a flock. And in a few weeks they are back in Alaska, where they’ll court, build nests, and raise families.
Turn your sound on to hear white-crowned sparrows singing—you can hear them over the sound of Gilderoy the desert tortoise crunching kale.
PS: A chirp-out to black-throated sparrows, who tough it through the summers with us.
Another PS: The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens suggests turning off unneeded lights at night to help migrating birds.
Thank you for sharing your wildlife photos and videos; we’ll include them in a feature soon. Always looking for more Twentynine Palms wildlife. Email your files to firstname.lastname@example.org
Desert Trumpet writer Kat Talley-Jones is a member of the Public Arts Advisory Committee, which is a part of the City of Twentynine Palms.
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