It’s not because they eat grasshoppers
Photo Credit: 
Randy Mitchell | For The Chronicle
A grasshopper sparrow perches on a barbed wire fence. Note the overall tan and brown appearance, un-streaked underparts, along with thick neck and flat head. Also note the mustard yellow lores. The Savannah sparrow also has yellow lores, but usually with a brighter yellow.
A grasshopper sparrow perches on a barbed wire fence. Note the overall tan and brown appearance, un-streaked underparts, along with thick neck and flat head. Also note the mustard yellow lores. The Savannah sparrow also has yellow lores, but usually with a brighter yellow.

Over the winter, I featured many sparrow species which inhabit Southwest Oklahoma during the colder months.

This week’s featured creature, the grasshopper sparrow, can be found in the area during the warmer months.

And why not? The habitat in Southwest Oklahoma is pretty good for this bird.

It’s funny, someone once queried me on how the bird got its name and suggested a column.

My reply was, “Yes, eventually a column. But I need to observe and study them a bit more. I’m not even 100% certain why they’re called ‘grasshopper,’ but from what I’ve seen (or heard, rather) it probably has to do with their songs. Sounds grasshopper-like to me.”

Observe and study? Soon after my reply, I realized that those actions would be very difficult for me for a couple of reasons. One being that I don’t have access to a lot of grassland (the bird’s preferred habitat), the other being that these birds have hidden lives. More on that later.

As a kid, the first time I saw an image of a grasshopper sparrow was in a field guide. I wondered why it was called “grasshopper.” I thought maybe it was because they ate grasshoppers, or perhaps it was due to the patterning on its head.

But when I heard the bird’s song for the first time, which is insect-like, I thought, “that’s probably why.”

I later learned that it is, in fact, due to the bird’s song.

In 1929, Edward Forbush, a Massachusetts ornithologist, described the grasshopper sparrow as “a queer, somber-colored, big-headed, shorttailed, unobtrusive little bird (that) did not come by its name because of its fondness for grasshoppers, though it is never averse to making a meal of them, but because of its grasshopper-like attempt at song — if song it can be called.”

I happen to be fonder of the bird than the late Mr. Forbush, and I enjoy listening to its singing as well.

Allow me to elaborate on the “hidden lives” comment. Grasshopper sparrows are one of the most elusive sparrow species. According to ornithologists, they often walk or run on the ground, rather than fly. And that usually occurs in deep grass where they’re not often visible. They tend to fly low and perch low.

So, there won’t be much studying of this bird. I have, however, observed their flying and singing habits.

Appearance

Grasshopper sparrows are small — about 4.5 inches in length. They are buffy tan and brown overall, with unstreaked underparts. They have thick necks and flat heads and mustard yellow lores (see photo).

Range

In Oklahoma, grasshopper sparrows are summer residents. They are found all over the state during the breeding season, although they are more common in the northern and western portions. No surprise as those areas have the bird’s prime habitat — grasslands. Their peak spring migration is late April, so right now is when they’ll be most common in the area.

Grasshopper sparrows winter in southern states, from Texas to North Carolina, and over much of Mexico.

Habitat

Grasslands, prairies, hayfields and overgrown pastures during the breeding season, and coastal plains and marshlands in the winter.

To be honest, most people will see these birds while driving down country roads when the birds are perched on fence wires. If you’ll notice in my photos, the birds are perched on roadside fences.

Food

Mostly insects and spiders in warmer months, and mostly seeds in winter. Insects include grasshoppers, beetles, centipedes and earthworms.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a grasshopper sparrow paralyzes grasshoppers by pinching their thorax and prepares the insect to feed to nestlings by shaking off each pair of legs.

Nesting

According to ornithologists at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension, grasshopper sparrows in Texas “breed from April to late July, based on egg collection dates from April 20 to July 24.” I think it’s safe to assume that the dates would be similar for Oklahoma as well.

They build nests either on the ground or very low to the ground in dense vegetation.

Females lay two to six eggs, which are incubated for about two weeks. Young fledge after about 10 to 12 days.

Odds and ends 

A group of grasshopper sparrows are collectively known as a “plague” of sparrows, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com