Pancake Flats

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Rhododendron along Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

On a cool, breezy day in late July, my husband Bruce and I decided to hike on Green Springs Trail. Following precise directions from our friend, Ruby Becker, we drove up the Allegheny Front, locally known as Wopsononock Mountain, on Wopsy Road, seven miles beyond the Penn State Altoona campus and parked in a State Game Lands #108 parking area. Since it was a seven-mile hike, and we are in our seventies, we planned only to hike the first portion, which our son, Dave, who had hiked the trail back in the spring with Juniata Valley Audubon Society members, said was the best part of the hike.

But we hadn’t counted on the seductive beauty of this trail. After a short walk on a gated road lined with a hedge of elderberry shrubs on one side and a bog on the other, we crossed a bridge over Tub Run and entered a mature second growth, mixed deciduous and coniferous forest. Most impressive were the healthy hemlock trees with not a sign of the hemlock woolly adelgid infestation. We followed a footpath through a tunnel of huge rhododendrons, many of which were still blooming. Black-throated green warblers sang “trees, trees, beautiful trees,” expressing our feelings for the impressive hemlocks.

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

painted trillium fruit along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The ground was a boggy sponge on either side of the trail and mossy hummocks provided habitat for a wide diversity of spring wildflowers, their leaves evidence that if we returned next spring, we would see blooming painted trilliums, starflowers, Canada mayflowers, Indian cucumber-roots, and trailing arbutus, among others. Beds of partridgeberry and a potpourri of club moss species, as well as lady ferns and cinnamon ferns also favored the wet ground while clumps of white Indian pipes lit up the dark understory.

In addition to black-throated green warblers, occasionally we heard the singing of the brilliant red and black male scarlet tanagers, the persistent red-eyed vireos, and twice a black-throated blue warbler. But a succession of ethereal hermit thrushes provided a continuous choir of music that followed us throughout the five miles of the hike within the forest. Once a hermit thrush and hooded warbler sang at the same time in an unintentional duet.

As we penetrated deeper into the forest, Bruce, armed with a map and compass, kept asking me if I wanted to turn back. He knew that I hate to retrace my steps, and I knew that the complete trail was circular, which is my favorite kind of trail. Furthermore, unlike our hilly home grounds in the ridge-and-valley, this trail was almost flat in an area aptly named Pancake Flats and thus was much easier than I had expected. For that reason, I saw no reason to turn around.

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

A view of the stream from Green Springs Trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Eventually, the trail became rocky, and below us we could hear the gurgle of Green Springs Run. On the woods’ floor were several huge flat rocks with rugs of moss and an understory of wood ferns. Dark-eyed juncos scolded us, and an eastern towhee exhorted us to “Drink your tea.” At last we had a view of Green Springs Run through the hemlocks and rhododendrons and descended to a bridge of large boulders that crossed the water.

We emerged out on to a grassy flat area that was, in reality, an overgrown road. As Bruce moved to examine the taller grasses on the opposite side of the road, he heard the unmistakable rattle of a timber rattlesnake. Although we stayed on the road edge and searched with our eyes to see the elusive reptile, we never did see the creature, but it rattled whenever we approached the underbrush. Finally, we took the hint and plunged back into the deep forest following Green Springs Run along the cleared footpath.

Beside the trail we spotted a pile of feathers—an indication that a predator had found its prey. A rock that had been wrenched out of the ground was evidence that a black bear had been searching for ants. We also paused to admire an enormous white pine beside the trail.

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

Tub Run from the trail (photo: Stan Kotala)

We stopped to picnic next to a picturesque small waterfall under a welcoming hemlock tree and then continued on through a forest with many young hemlocks and a nice stand of mountain laurel beneath the larger trees. Apparently, the leaf fungus that has killed many of our mountain laurel shrubs had not reached this game lands.

Cinnamon ferns and unfortunately also the invasive Japanese stiltgrass formed a portion of the understory. But I was delighted to find blooming dewdrops, also known by its genus name Dalibarda. Still another common name is star-violet because its leaves resemble those of violets, but its single, white, five-petaled flowers do not look like violets. In fact, this lover of bogs, peaty barrens and cool, mossy woods is a northern flower that grows at higher elevations on the Allegheny Front, according to Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy A. Block in their definitive book The Plants of Pennsylvania. In addition, I noticed the three-leaf, clover-like leaves of northern wood-sorrel, another five-petaled, white flower, that one with pink veins, which lives in the same habitat as dewdrops in Pennsylvania.

The last two miles of the trail were on the gated road. Even though the foot trail looked heavily used, we had seen no one on it, perhaps because we were there on a weekday. But on the road we did see a few people walking past us near the middle of the afternoon.

The trail was also remarkably trash-free except for an upright balloon caught on a sapling, wishing a happy birthday to a one-year-old, that had floated in from who knew where. Billed as “biodegradable” balloons, they still can be ingested by wildlife and last for years. We know this because often we find them on our mountain land above Tyrone, especially after their St. Patrick’s Day celebration when they release 3,000 balloons. We learned years ago that whatever pollution is released in the air eventually returns to earth and the same is true of balloons.

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Srpings Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

Dalibarda (dewdrops) in bloom along Green Springs Trail (photo: Bruce Bonta)

The sunny, open road, in contrast to the dark forest, where we saw only a couple common wood nymph butterflies, was a haven for butterflies—great-spangled fritillaries, spicebush swallowtails, common sulphurs, red-spotted purples, and tiger swallowtails. Common and tall milkweed provided nectar for the butterflies, but sadly we saw no monarch butterflies, despite their milkweed food source.

It had been a terrible year for monarchs, and I had seen not a single one on our property despite abundant milkweed in our First and Far fields. Much later we learned that the population of migrating monarchs in their Mexican winter quarters had been reduced by 80%, an appallingly low number. Not only are their wintering trees being illegally logged in the Mexican mountains, but herbicides, such as glyphosate, used by industrial agriculture in our country, are killing off native milkweed species, the only plants on which the monarchs lay their eggs. So we applauded the managers of this state game lands for providing food and habitat for this rapidly declining butterfly.

The healthy forest and wetland also provide food and habitat for a wide range of birds and mammals. Best of all, from our standpoint, is that this enormous game land provides a refuge for those of us who appreciate wild Pennsylvania.

Cavity-Nesting Birds

tufted titmouse at nest hole by The Natural Capital on Flicker

tufted titmouse at nest hole by The Natural Capital on Flicker (Creative Commons licence)

I’ve never thought of myself as a female Dr. Doolittle, but last June a bird “talked” to me and I understood her.

My tale began last April when our son, Dave, decided not to remove a dead oriental cherry tree trunk in his front yard. It was an eyesore, but, on the other hand, he thought it might attract cavity-nesting birds.

And so it did. Almost immediately a pair of black-capped chickadees started excavating a hole facing the woods and then deserted it and began another hole facing the guesthouse porch five feet away. Unlike most chickadees, which are secretive during the nesting period, they were exhibitionists. As Dave and I sat on the porch, they continued to dig out their nest, carrying beaks full of wood chips and dropping them nearby. Not only were they unafraid of us, but they also weren’t fazed on April 20 when several members of our Juniata Valley Audubon Society stood on the porch watching them.

Dave spent far more time on his front porch than I did and kept me informed about the chickadees’ work. Once they hollowed out an area deep in the trunk, the female started gathering material for her nest. Chickadees are supposed to use natural materials such as moss, pine needles, and possibly bark to provide a firm foundation to their nests and then they line them with finer material such as rabbit fur.

But at 2:00 p.m. on April 23, as I sat on our veranda reading several hundred feet away from and out of sight of Dave’s porch, a chickadee, presumable the female, flew in and landed on my book. By doing this, she grabbed my attention, and I watched her fly over to a piece of unraveling beige twine attached to the handle of a covered plastic bucket. She clung to the twine and pulled out strands of this material until she had crammed her beak full, and off she flew. She returned several minutes later and yanked off more, but this time her beak was only half full. She didn’t come back so I assumed she had enough lining for her nest.


One of the chickadee parents at the nest hole in the cherry snag

One of the chickadee parents at the nest hole in the cherry snag

The next time I saw her pulling out twine fibers was the afternoon of the Pennsylvania Migratory Bird Count on May 11. No doubt she had been back numerous times when I hadn’t seen her. According to chickadee researchers, nest-building by females can take as little as two days and as long as two weeks so this female was several days over the limit. Or maybe she was freshening her nest lining.

On the 21st, Dave and I sat and watched the chickadee male feeding the female sitting down in the nest. Neither paid any attention to us. But we were worried. Several days earlier Dave had discovered a six-and-a half-foot-long, shed black rat snake skin not far from the nest. And the previous spring he had observed a black rat snake climb up a tree at the edge of the woods and wipe out a northern flicker nest he had been watching form his porch. We hoped the chickadees would survive and raise their young, but their nest hole was much closer to the ground and the trunk much easier to climb than the mature live tree that had held the flickers.

a black rat snake in a flicker hole, just after eating the nestlings

a black rat snake in a flicker hole, just after eating the nestlings

Four days later, when I went down to check on the chickadees, one parent held a caterpillar in its beak and kept calling “dee-dee-dee” as it perched on a cherry stub above the hole, while a second chickadee flew down into the nest. Finally, it emerged and the calling bird zipped down and reappeared a few seconds later without the caterpillar. Then both parents flew off.

It looked as if they were feeding young. She must have begun incubating her eggs the day after I saw her gathering more twine because it takes 12 to 13 days for the eggs to hatch. But after the eggs hatch, according to ornithologists, the male is supposed to feed both the young and the female for several days since she is brooding the nestlings. Not only was this pair unusually bold, but they didn’t seem to be following the “rule book” either.

Day after day they continued feeding their young, most often caterpillars, which was the most common fare for chickadee nestlings, according to the work of one ornithologist in Massachusetts back in 1961. He constricted the throats of nestlings when they were fed and altogether counted 35 caterpillars, 11 spiders, 10 unidentified larvae, six termites, one white Lepidoptera, one pupa, and one fly.

On June 2 I did some more chickadee watching as they fed both caterpillars and insects to their young. Twice a parent emerged with a fecal sac and flew away with it. Sometimes parents eat these sacs, but usually they drop them far from the nest so they don’t attract predators.

After a short wait, a parent arrived with a green caterpillar, paused at the nest hole for several minutes, and finally ate the caterpillar. It flew into the nest entrance and stayed there for more than ten minutes, and I could see the nestlings below. Then the second parent arrived with another green caterpillar which it fed to a begging nestling.

Right on time, on June 8, 16 days after hatching, the chickadees fledged, but both Dave and I missed it. However, the black rat snake never found them, much to our relief, because we had gotten fond of the plucky birds. Perhaps, by building their nest close to the porch, they had gained some measure of protection from our constant surveillance.

In the meantime, the twine story developed another twist. On May 26, my husband Bruce and I sat on the veranda in the afternoon and watched a tufted titmouse fly in twice and pull out a beak full of twine strands, the second time mixing it with a little freshly cut grass. Titmice are also cavity nest builders and titmice females construct the nest, but I had no idea where her nest was. Still, I couldn’t believe how popular the twine was as nest-building material.

More than three weeks later, on June 19, as I sat on the veranda reading in early afternoon, a tufted titmouse flew in and landed on a round white table. Then she flew toward my face and over to the rim of a white chair across from me. Next she flew back to the table, then to me where she landed on my foot, which was propped on a stool, and looked up at me. This titmouse was trying even harder than the chickadee had to get my attention.

She returned to the table, hopped underneath it, and pecked a few times on the cement floor beneath her spread legs. It was then I realized that she was “asking” me to move the two large containers of potting soil I had recently placed in front of the covered bucket with the treasured twine.

“Alright,” I said to her. “I understand what you want.”

She flew off, and I moved the larger containers so the twine would be accessible. A couple minutes later, the titmouse returned and spent five minutes shredding the end of the twine and filling her beak. She looked over at me several times as if to say thank you. At least that’s how I interpreted it. Then she chirped to me as she flew away.

For the first time in my life, I felt as if I had had actual communication from a wild creature. To me it was a transcendent experience I will never forget.

A short film of the chickadees at work excavating the den hole.

Video and photos by Dave Bonta except where indicated.

Living with Bears

Ursus americanus close up

Photo by Valerie/ucumari on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND)

On a warm, humid day in late May, I climbed up Pit Mound Trail to the top of Sapsucker Ridge and followed the old logging road along the ridgetop.

As I reached a foot trail into the forest, a medium-sized black bear burst from the underbrush and ran full-tilt toward me.

“Hey there,” I said. It stopped, looked at me, turned, and ran downhill. As usual, my close encounter with a bear—a mere 30 feet away—was so peaceful that my heart rate didn’t even increase.

Over the years I have had numerous close encounters with black bears, and not once have I felt threatened. That is as it should be according to black bear researcher Benjamin Kilham. He has been studying black bears in the field and raising orphaned cubs at the behest of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for nearly two decades.

In his excellent, new book, Out on a Limb, Kilham advises us to stand still, look at bears and speak quietly to them. In almost all cases the worse they will do is false charge.

Out on a Limb (cover) by Benjamin KilhamBut if you feed bears, either intentionally or unintentionally, with bird feeders, they quickly become habituated, and you must continue or they may come into your home in search of food. Kilham feels that “nuisance bears” have become so because humans feed them. We learned that lesson when they came on our back porch and turned over metal garbage cans filled with washed cans and bottles for recycling and with birdseed. Once we put those cans in our basement and brought our bird feeders in at night, we had no more bears tramping around on our porch or peering into our bow windows.

Black bears live in a world of scent, Kilham says, and they can smell food from a distance. Especially when wild food is scarce, as it has been our last three autumns without a good acorn crop, bears are on the lookout for black oil sunflower seeds which give them more nutrition than any wild foods available to them.

But they also use scent to track down each other, identify bears in the vicinity, and follow bears that have found surplus food. Their sweat glands excrete alarm scents when they sense predators, such as coyotes. If they are extremely frightened, they emit scent from their anal glands which brings other bears to their rescue.

They leave scent marks on trees along with claw and bite marks. In New Hampshire, where Kilham lives, they favor red pines. On our mountain they use the power poles on our small powerline right-of-way.

The day before I ran into the bear, I was crossing the right-of-way on Laurel Ridge and looked 1900 feet across at Sapsucker Ridge. I spotted a round, black object beneath a power pole. At first I thought it was a shadow, but when I looked through my binoculars I saw a very large black bear nosing around. Then he ambled off toward the vernal pond area.

Later, when I examined the pole, I found it had been shredded as high as seven feet. Probably the bear was a male signaling his availability to local females. Both sexes will back-rub, side-rub, and chin-rub such trees too. They also walk over saplings or crawl under them to leave their sent or mark with their scat or urine.

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer's Hollow

black bear-marked power pole in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

Using radio collars, remote cameras and DNA testing, but most of all his own observations, Kilham has found that other bears not only know the identities of the marking bears but also their gender, mood, relationship to them, and where they stand in the social hierarchy. In his area, females have a core home range from three to five square miles and a dominant female ensures that her daughters and granddaughters set up nearby so she can control an even larger area.

Male cubs are sent on their way at 12 to 18 months of age to live wandering lives, usually in bands of other subadult males so they can overpower females and get access to food. But adult male bears don’t compete with females for space, cover, or water because they are hoping to mate with them. Instead, they wander as far as 200 square miles a year in search of food.

On the other hand, overlapping female home ranges may also be the home ranges of several breeding males, but often only one dominant male will mate with the females in his breeding area. Kilham estimates that only the largest males age eight or older get to mate—10 to 15% of the population–even though males are sexually mature at age two.

In addition to scent, bears communicate through facial expressions, ear movements, body posture (like their stiff-legged walk to intimidate other bears) and vocalizations. The bear I encountered looked startled and Kilham says by studying bears closely, especially some of the cubs he’s raised to adulthood and then continued to observe closely throughout their lives, he has “found a great deal of similarity between human facial expressions and those of bears…Smiles are smiles and frowns are frowns.”

Furthermore, if a bear’s eyes twitch or its ears are cocked back, it is annoyed and deciding what to do. When it is irritated, its ears are half-cocked. If a bear is being cautious but curious it may have one ear cocked forward and one backward.

Black bear vocalizations include what Kilham calls a “guttural reverberation of sound in their chests” when they are angry and as well as a “huh huh” when they are upset and an “mmm, mmm,” appeasement call. They also make a gulping sound that males use to get female bears to go with them during mating season and females use to guide their cubs and keep them safe.

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer's Hollow

Black bear mother with cubs in Plummer’s Hollow (photo by Dave Bonta)

When cubs are nursing, they make a “deep loud purr” which they also make when they are happy. They have a loud distress call that Kilham says sounds like “Baa Wo Oow,” but I thought was a wailing child. Years ago I heard such a sound one fall morning and then saw two cubs below our house crying while standing over something black. When I rushed down, they ran off still yowling. There on the ground was a dead adult bear. She had been shot out of season with an arrow somewhere on our mountain and had managed to reach our yard before dying or so the game protector we called told us. He took her away, but I will never forget the sound those cubs made.

I often wondered if the cubs survived on their own. They would have been born the previous January and their mother would have begun teaching them about food sources once they had emerged from their den in the spring. Kilham discovered that they learn by mouthing and smelling what their mother eats– buds, young leaves and flowers of trees, especially red maples and white ashes, in spring as well as wildflowers such as nodding sedge, jewelweed, wild lettuce, and especially jack-in-the-pulpit, in summer berries of all kinds, and in autumn acorns and beechnuts. In all three seasons they devour ants, bees, and grubs. One of Kilham’s cubs, Squirty, ate 40 to 60 ant nests in an hour while another, Yoda, consumed 20 to 30 yellow jacket nests. They are also opportunists and will take newborn fawns and young nestlings and fledglings. A Pennsylvania Game Commission study found that they were a major predator on fawns.

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius

Black bear enjoying a foggy day by Howard Ignatius (CC BY-NC-ND)

Because Kilham suffers from severe dyslexia, he is not a trained biologist. Instead, he makes his living as a gunsmith. Yet year after year, he goes into the woods to watch bears. Through various experiments he has found that bears use fresh ungulate scats as probiotics and that they can learn to recognize themselves in mirrors. He also discovered what is now called the Kilham organ by noticing that the cubs he raised mouthed all new-to-them vegetation, often holding it in their mouths for a few seconds and then releasing it unmarked. He dissected a road-killed bear and found a fleshy organ about jelly bean-sized in the pocket of a V-shaped bone, called the vomer, which is under the center of the nose and above the palate. Eventually, after years of research, he realized that sensory nerves in the organ allowed them to identify airborne scent with it. They also use it to figure out what is safe to eat.

At a lecture he gave at the College of the Atlantic (which I watched on YouTube), someone asked him why he studied bears. His answer was that “We need to know more about the animals we exist with.” And, as he says in his book, “You don’t need to be a credentialed scientist to make new discoveries. You just need to go outside and open your eyes.”

April Songster

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni

Field sparrow singing by Dave Govoni (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)

Sometime in late March or early April, the first male field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) of the season sings his long down-slurring whistle that ends in an accelerating trill. Soon he is joined by other returning males, and our 37-acre First Field rings with their lovely songs. Even in a dawn chorus of residents and migrants—dark-eyed juncos, American tree sparrows, song sparrows, white-throated sparrows, blue-headed vireos, eastern towhees, and black-capped chickadees—the song of field sparrows stands out.

Not only do field sparrows start singing early, but they continue until at least the middle of August, only taking short breaks after pairing up with mates. Once the females begin incubating their eggs, males resume singing probably because such singing indicates their territorial holdings.

Their familiar song is referred to as their “simple song” by ornithologists, but there is nothing simple about it until you hear another quite different song as I did when walking across the field one morning. I was puzzled by it, but finally I spotted a singing field sparrow. He was singing an entirely different song, his “complex” or “dawn” song, which turned out to be the reverse of his “simple” song. It began with a trill of short notes and was followed by down-slurring whistles. Apparently, this is his more aggressive song sung at dawn or when interacting with other males over territorial rights.

field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar

Field sparrow by Kelly Colgan Azar (CC BY-ND)

Although field sparrows over-winter in some areas of Pennsylvania, notably the Coastal Plain, Piedmont, and river valleys in the Ridge and Valley, here on our mountain in the west central part of the state, we see our first field sparrow at our feeders in mid-to-late March. His white eye-ring and bright pink bill and legs distinguish this rusty, brown-backed bird from other sparrow species.

Both our First and Far fields host these birds because they have the shrubby, old field habitat field sparrows prefer. According to a long term study (1987 to present) of field sparrow habitat in Lackawanna County by Dr. Michael Carey, field sparrows favor fields that are open but have scattered shrub and wood vegetation, in Carey’s case, honeysuckle, dogwood, Rosa and Viburnum species, and in our case black locust saplings, blackberry, a few autumn olives, and a scattering of multiflora rose and Japanese barberry along its edges.

Furthermore, field sparrows will occupy an unmowed hayfield the first year after it has been mowed and has a cover of grasses and other forbs mainly goldenrod. Over the next ten years, their numbers will increase as shrubs and other small woody vegetation cover 30% of a field and then they will slowly decrease until the field has been unmown for 30 years. At that point, it no longer will suit field sparrows because it will be overgrown with trees and shrubs.

field sparrow nest by Mike Allen

Field sparrow nest by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

In summary, Carey found that fields eight to 11 years old after mowing produced the most field sparrow nests. As the fields neared 25 years of age, field sparrow territories were held only for a short time either by a male that failed to attract a mate or by a couple that lost a nest and left in the middle of the season.

Although our First Field has not been mown for more than 20 years, woody vegetation has not taken over because my husband, Bruce, has been hand-pruning the black locust saplings. Thus, it has remained 37 acres of mostly grasses and other forbs, especially goldenrod and asters.

Carey also found that many male field sparrows are homebodies. Even though their field habitat is no longer optimal, older birds that have nested in a particular field return each spring and defend their territory even, in one case, while it was being mown. But their offspring leave their natal home and search for their own optimal breeding area.

The best field sparrow habitat, though, according to Pennsylvania’s Second Breeding Bird Atlas survey, is reclaimed surface mine areas in the Pittsburgh Low Plateau Section, which had the highest number of breeding field sparrows. Altogether, the atlas survey found 210,000 singing males. While that sounds like a lot of field sparrows, their population size has declined 3% a year since Breeding Bird Surveys began in 1966. For that reason, we manage our First Field as field sparrow habitat and look forward to their return each spring.

Field sparrow nestlings - about 4 or 5 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – about 4 or 5 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Ten to 20 days after males arrive, the females, which look like the males, appear. Most likely they are not the same females the males mated with in previous years, but most will remain faithful to one another during the breeding season. They pair within a couple days and begin mating while the female chooses a nest site and builds a nest constructed of grasses and tucked in grass clumps or at the base of shrubs. It takes her five to eight days with the help of her mate who closely accompanies her and occasionally offers her nesting material.

Shortly after the nest is constructed, she lays two to five white or pale green spotted eggs and begins incubating after the last one is laid, although she may delay several days if the weather is cold. Most eggs are laid between May 3 and July 27 in Pennsylvania, but later nestings never have more than two to three eggs. They are also built higher in shrubs or saplings as the season progresses.

It takes 11 to 12 days of incubating before the chicks hatch, usually all on the same day. Born naked and helpless, their eyes open at four days. By seven to eight days of age they can leave their nest but remain in the low vegetation until they are 13 to 14 days old when they can fly short distances, but their parents continue to feed them. At last, they are off on their own when they are 26 to 34 days of age.

Throughout this period, the parents feed them a diet of almost exclusively arthropods. In Pennsylvania Carey reported that of 1,853 food items he examined, 80% were butterfly and moth caterpillars, 10% adult flies and bees, 6% katydids, 3% adult moths, and 1% spiders.

Field sparrow nestlings - 9 days old

Field sparrow nestlings – 9 days old by Mike Allen (CC BY-NC-SA)

Of course, both eggs and nestlings are often eaten by predators, most commonly black rat snakes, but Carey also found instances of eastern garter snake predation. Possible mammalian predators include chipmunks, red and gray foxes, weasels, skunks, mink, raccoons, and opossums. Blue jays, house wrens, and American crows are proven bird predators on field sparrows.

After a loss to predators, a female begins laying eggs in a new nest she has quickly constructed a mere five days later. When the first nest is successful, she begins laying eggs in a new nest six to 20 days after the young fledge. Still, only about 40% of nests fledge young.

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie

Field sparrow fledgling by Seabrooke Leckie (CC BY-NC-ND)

Once on their own, the immature birds flock together and may select their breeding habitat before their autumn migration. They also begin to expand their food sources from wholly insect to grass and forb seeds which sustain them through the winter months.

In addition, they are learning their hauntingly beautiful songs from those males they hear on their natal grounds. They perfect their songs on their wintering grounds in January and February and modify them the following spring to match those of nearby neighbors. Then, once again, I enjoy a choir of field sparrows sing as I walk the Butterfly Loop in First Field.