Dances with Sparrows

Last Friday, January 30, I was in the Kukutali Preserve.  I hiked out to the south beach off Flagstaff Point.  Because it is a fragile ecosystem, the point itself is off-limits to visitors, but access to the beach is permitted.  I was there to see if the resident Oystercatchers were around, but not on this day.  Instead, I encountered a pair of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) exhibiting some odd behavior.

The two birds were positioned about six feet (2 meters) apart.  The one on the shore was swelled up with neck tucked in looking rather like Jabba the Hutt ("heh-heh-heh").  He was flipping his wings up, first the left one, then the right.

This was the object of his attention, a second Song Sparrow on the beach perched on driftwood.  At first, I thought I was witnessing courtship.  Although January seemed a bit early for that, it was a very spring-like morning.  This entire winter has been warmer than usual.

When I got home and started to research the behavior, I discovered this was a territorial dispute.  Apparently the displaying sparrow considered this his turf and the second bird was trespassing.  There was little reaction from this second sparrow except, perhaps, for his crown feathers propped up in Mohawk haircut style.


The actual courtship of Song Sparrows apparently does involve what looks like territorial displaying.  The female might be attacked like an intruder in the males territory.  Instead of fleeing or fighting back, she sings him a sweet song.  Who could resist that?


Song Sparrows are amazingly easy to photograph.  They are not particularly shy of humans and tolerate having cameras pointed at them.  This pair flew up and landed about 10 feet (3 meters) from me.  They performed their little display while I took their picture.  When the second bird flew up to Flagstaff, the first one was right on his tail.  I went on my way with another interesting wildlife encounter.

Regarding the Oystercatchers, I haven't seem them out there all winter.  Because the Preserve is now open, have they been chased away by the increase in visitors?  Perhaps they don't spend winters here at their nest site.  They may have joined the large gathering that I see at West Beach over in Deception Pass State Park.  I hope to see them at Kukutali again when spring comes.