One of the best things in the winter is working in the greenhouse beginning in February. It’s almost like being outside except it’s warm! Starting in February, Song Sparrows begin to mate and nest, the male singing all day long. In the cold depths of winter, hearing that sound is like light at the end of the tunnel.
Song sparrows are adaptable birds, but a few modifications to your landscape can entice them to nest and stay around. Song sparrows like brushy areas, especially at the edge of the woods where there’s more sunlight and high plant diversity. With a few plantings and simple changes in your landscaping practices, they adapt quickly. Read on to find out what you can do to keep these obliging singers in your yard!
A Background on Song Sparrows
Song sparrows are a widespread and common songbird in North America, ranging from coast to coast and from the Northwest Territories to Mexico. Song sparrows are mostly brown though they vary slightly regionally; here in the Midwest, they are mostly seen with black spotting on the white front. They’re around 5-6 inches long.
Song sparrows like open woods and grassy areas, and sometimes will come to platform-style birdfeeders. In the spring and summer, they mostly eat insects; as the season progresses and the weather turns colder, they turn more to seeds. They are easy to spot, feeding in the open on the ground.
A somewhat unusual fact, mockingbirds can’t seem to mimic song sparrows, no matter how hard they try!
When do Song Sparrows Begin Nesting?
Song sparrows will start to sing and build nests in mid-February in Central Indiana, especially in milder years. They are more affected by the lengthening daylight than the temperature, though, so you can often hear them singing happily when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.
Song sparrow pairs will often raise several broods in one season; the young stay in the nests for about 2 weeks, and stay with the parents until they are able to fly and find their own food. It’s especially important at this stage to make sure no housecats come around, as the nests are very close to the ground and the young are vulnerable at this stage.
Where do Song Sparrows Nest?
Song sparrows range over most of North America, but their breeding range is concentrated in the northern 2/3 of the continent. In the Midwest and Appalachians, as well as the Rockies and the West Coast, song sparrows stay around all year.
Song sparrows mostly nest in shrubs and small trees, especially in abandoned fields where there’s a good mix of shrubs, small trees and open grassy areas. In the backyard, they like a similar habitat – That doesn’t mean that you have to abandon your backyard to overgrown scrubland! A simple planting of small trees and shrubs plus a few ornamental grasses and perennials will keep them happy. A single redbud mixed in with some switchgrass provides basic cover; add some echinaceas and wild quinine for summer color, and some goatsbeard near the redbud, and you’ll have a garden that the song sparrows will be glad to nest in! Put an Eastern Red Cedar or Virginia Pine 20 feet away from the redbud and they’ll have a place to hide out from hawks and housecats.
An interesting observation – Song sparrows will return to the same spot year after year to nest, sometimes with pairs fighting over the spot. They particularly like it in the base of prickly shrubs like roses, or in the space between thick clumps of grass. If you can somehow provide this in your yard, they’ll move right in.
To attract song sparrows, your garden area should be at least 20 feet deep by 50 feet wide – Most songbirds need a certain minimum to nest in, but you’d be surprised at how little it actually takes!
What do Song Sparrows Eat?
Song sparrows eat a lot of insects, especially in the spring and summer – They are a very beneficial bird to have in your garden! They will consume all manner of caterpillars, ants, spiders, etc – If you think that dense landscape plantings attract bugs, it’s a good thing because this is exactly what most songbirds feed on. A bugless landscape is a very sterile, unalive landscape.
In the Fall and especially the Winter, song sparrows eat a lot of seeds. Because they are ground foragers, it is very important to include grasses and plants that drop their seed on the ground. In really cold weather or if there’s a lot of snow on the ground, scattering birdseed on the ground will help them out greatly.
Good Plants for Song Sparrows
Song sparrows love the rich area at the edges and openings in woods – They really thrive in old, overgrown pastures that have a mix of plant types. Here’s a few of the plants you can include in your yard to attract them without making your yard look like an overgrown pasture!
This native North American grass is of great use in the garden – Some of the strains can look a bit unkempt and floppy; if you use more upright varieties such as “Shenendoah” or “Northwind”, it helps to keep the garden more tidy. “Shenandoah” is a great selection for smaller gardens, as it is a more compact grower, topping out at 3-4 feet.
For Song Sparrows, switchgrass offers dense clumps for nesting and protection while foraging, as well as plentiful seeds to forage on.
Another prairie grass, Prairie Dropseed forms short clumps 2-3 feet tall, with a fountainlike form. It’s called “dropseed” for a reason – The round seeds drop from the seedheads throughout the fall and winter, attracting tons of birds, especially juncos and song sparrows!
A nice selection of prairie dropseed, “Tara”, offers a more compact, upright plant – It looks quite different from the typical form, but it’s well worth including in a designed landscape, especially in typical suburb subdivisions where HOA’s may frown on “messy” yards.
This small tree is well worth including in any garden in the Midwest or East! With attractive form and unmatched pink flowers, redbud can easily be included in smaller gardens. Though capable of reaching 30 feet tall even in Indiana, it’s very easy to keep them short by removing stems as soon as they reach 3 inches thick. New growth fills in very quickly, often growing 8 feet in one season from the ground on established trees that have been cut back.
Redbuds offer protection and nesting sites for song sparrows, especially ones that have been pruned back to encourage multiple stems.
Serviceberries should be included in every yard! The only area we wouldn’t use this is if there are a lot of junipers around – This can cause an unsightly rust problem that affects the fruit of serviceberries. Serviceberries, especially Amelanchier laevis (Alleghany Serviceberry) and Amelanchier canadensis (Shadblow), form neat small trees that bloom clear white in early spring. They produce ample fruit, attracting many different birds in mid-June. Similar to Redbud, serviceberries can easily be maintained as a shorter shrub by removing older stems.
Song sparrows use serviceberry as a nesting site, and for cover when they’re flying in from other areas. Seeing a small tree sticking up above the grass lets them know there’ll be plenty of protection if they fly into the area, and they’re more likely to investigate potential nest spots.
Song sparrows really like roses, and for good reason! As birds that nest low to the ground, they are vulnerable to predators, especially housecats. A thorny rosebush is like a secure fortress to song sparrows, and pairs of them will often fight it out over who gets the rosebush!
Carolina and Virginia roses are particularly good for this purpose; Carolina rose is a short rose of moist openings, growing 2-3 feet tall. Virginia rose prefers a dryer habitat and grows about twice as tall. Both sport very colorful, fragrant, deep pink flowers.
Feeding Song Sparrows
Song sparrows are easy to feed, especially in winter. By providing a densely planted landscape area with plentiful shrubs and grasses, you’ve already done the job. Providing a little extra food in the winter can be helpful for song sparrows, though – They really like sunflower oilers, and will often feed at platform-style feeders. We mostly notice them scratching at the ground under our tube birdfeeders, picking up seeds that other birds have dropped or kicked out of the feeders.
Providing Protection for Song Sparrows
One last note – Because Song Sparrows feed on the ground and nest fairly close to the ground, it is very important to provide some kind of protection for them, especially while they are nesting. If you have a housecat, keep it inside for the few weeks that the sparrows nest, especially if you’ve observed an active pair in your garden. Also try to include cover from hawks – Sparrows like densely branched shrubs and thorny shrubs, mostly because it offers them protection from hawks. In most areas in the East, if you feed the birds, you can be sure you’ll have a big redtailed or cooper’s hawk before long.
Also be sure to leave any clumps of ornamental grasses standing – Sparrows rely on the seed dropped by these clumps and the shelter they offer. Most native grasses look very attractive in the winter, with their dried blades rustling in the wind.
Try redesigning your landscape to accommodate these cheerful singers – When you step outside on a cold, February day next spring, you’ll be greeted with the warming sound of song sparrows.