Open main menu

Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/Swamp Sparrow

64 Swamp Sparrow.jpg


Fringilla palustris, Wils.


The shores and such flat sand-bars as are overgrown with grasses and rank weeds, along the Mississippi, from its mouth to a great height, as well as the swamps that occur in the woods, within a short distance from the margins of that river, are the resorts of the Swamp Sparrow, during autumn and winter. Although these birds do not congregate in flocks, their numbers are immense. They form the principal food of the many Sparrow Hawks, Pigeon Hawks, and Hen-harriers, which follow them as well as several other species, on their return from the Middle Districts, where they go towards spring, for the purpose of breeding. In those districts they continue to prefer low swampy places, damp meadows, and the margins of creeks and rivers.

It is a timid species, destitute of song, and merely uttering a single cheep, which is now and then heard during the day, but more frequently towards evening. They skulk along the weeds with activity, and feed principally upon the seeds of grasses, with a few insects, sometimes wading in shallow water. When wounded and forced to fall in the stream, they swim off to the nearest tuft of grass and hide in it. Their flight is short, low, and assisted by strong jerking motions of the body and tail, accompanied by a rustling of the wings. They alight by dropping suddenly amongst the weeds, seldom making towards a high tree. They are rarely if ever met with in dry woodlands.

Their nest is placed on the ground, at the foot of a large bunch of tall grass. It is composed of dry weeds and finer fibres of the same, and is sometimes partially covered over. The eggs are four or five, of a dull white, speckled with reddish. They raise two, sometimes three, broods in a season.

I found these birds abundantly dispersed in the swamps of Cayaga Lakes, and those bordering the Illinois river, during summer, and far up the Arkansas River in the winter months. Their flesh is sedgy, which perhaps forms no objection to some people against its use. They become fat and tender, when the weeds have produced an abundance of seeds. Their note differs from that of all other species of Sparrow, being harsher in its tone. The young follow the parents on the ground, skulking among the grass for nearly a week before they are able to fly.

The plant on which you see this bird is called the May-apple. It shoots from the ground in great numbers, and grows very close. The flowers appear at an early season, and are succeeded by a pulpy yellowish fruit, about the size of a pullet's egg, and which, when ripe, is pleasant to the taste, being a little acid and very cooling.

Fringilla palustris, Ch. Bonaparte, Synops. of Birds of the United States, p. 110.
Swamp Sparrow, Fringilla palustris, Wils. Amer. Ornith. vol. iii. p. 49, Pl. xxii. fig. 1. Male.

Adult Male. Plate LXIV.

Bill short, conical, acute, straight; upper mandible nearly straight in its dorsal line, as is the lower; gap-line a little declinate at the base. Nostrils basal, roundish, partly concealed by the feathers. Feet of moderate length; tarsus longer than the middle toe; toes free, the lateral ones nearly equal; claws compressed, arched, acute.

Plumage rather compact above, soft and blended beneath. Wings short, rounded, the third and fourth quills longest. Tail longish, slightly notched, the feathers broad and rather acute.

Bill dark brown above, paler and tinged with blue beneath. Iris hazel. Feet yellowish-brown. Upper part of the head reddish-brown, streaked with black. Loral space, and a broad streak over the eye, yellowish-grey; a dark line behind the eye, and another from the commissure of the mandibles. Upper parts generally yellowish-brown, spotted with brownish-black. Primary quill-coverts dusky, as are the inner webs of the secondary coverts and quills, their outer webs being brownish-red. Tail-feathers dusky, their outer webs brownish-red. Sides of the neck and the breast light grey, the rest of the under parts greyish-white.

Length 5+12 inches, extent of wings 7+12; bill along the ridge 512, along the back 23; tarsus 1112.

The May-apple.

Podophyllum peltatum, Willd. Sp. Pl. vol. ii. p. 1141. Pursh, Flor. Amer. vol. ii. p. 366—Polyandria Monogynia, Linn. Ranunculaceæ, Juss.

Root of many large tubers. Stalks several, each divided at the top, and bearing two peltate leaves, composed of five or seven lobes, with a flower in the fork. Petals nine, white. Fruit when ripe of the size of a plum, yellow.