Knowing the White-throated Sparrow

By Edie Parnum

White-throated Sparrow on northern breeding grounds. Photo © Gerald Dewaghe.  Click to enlarge.

White-throated sparrows come to my feeding station every day during the cold months.  Easily recognized, these crisply-plumaged brown sparrows sport a white throat, white stripes on the head, and a bright spot of yellow at the base of the bill. A tan-striped form has somewhat less bold plumage. I notice they prefer to eat the seeds on the ground beneath the feeders. Their feeding style is entertaining. They jump forward with both feet and then scratch back to uncover the seeds. Using their strong bills, they quickly crack the shell and consume the nutritious morsel. Over and over, they jump, scratch, and grab a seed.  Then, there’s a quick lift of the head to check for predators.

Around my yard, I glimpse them in the brushy areas. I’ve left the perennials standing over the winter and allowed leaves to remain on the ground. This is their preferred habitat where they find plenty of seeds and insect eggs, larvae, and cocoons. Flocked together and mostly hidden in the dense vegetation, I hear their soft chips as they keep in contact and a metallic chink sound if alarmed.  Occasionally they sing their sweet song, “Ole Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”. Mostly, they keep quiet, but alert, to avoid detection by hawks, neighborhood cats, and other predators. I think I know this bird well.

Tan-striped form of White-throated Sparrow feeding in leaf litter.  Photo © Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

Admittedly, I see only a small portion of its life. The White-throated Sparrow isn’t a year-round resident here in southeastern Pennsylvania. With breeding grounds in the northern forests. I’ve never seen one establish its territory, build a nest, incubate eggs, or feed caterpillars to its young. I’ve missed seeing its life challenges, too.   At some point, it probably survived an encounter with a deadly predator or narrowly avoided a disastrous crash into a window.  Perhaps one spring it returned to its usual breeding location in the boreal forest and discovered it had been logged—destroyed to make toilet paper. I’ve probably missed all its major life events.

My feeders don’t provide everything these birds need. Opportunities to observe what this bird requires to survive are limited. The unseen beneficence of nature provides the food, shelter, water, and places to raise its young for this creature and all living creatures.


Looking for Nests

By Edie Parnum

Nests are hard to find.  Sure, it’s easy to see the House Wrens and Tree Swallows come and go from the nest boxes I have provided.  Most songbirds, however, build and raise

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard.  Photo by Edie Parnum.

A House Wren about to feed a caterpillar to its young in Edie’s backyard. Photo by Edie Parnum.

their young in well-concealed cup nests.  Paying particular attention to the dense areas, I examine my trees and shrubs. I look, too, for lumps in the crotches of trees. I strain to see high in the canopy.  The breeding season is well underway, but I’ve found only two cup nests on my ¾-acre property.

Early this spring a female Robin built a nest out of grass, sticks, and mud in a dense holly below my raised deck.  I could look down and see her settled in the nest. Once I glimpsed four pale aqua eggs. Here was an opportunity to learn more about the nesting behaviors of the American Robin. From a comfortable but hidden vantage, I planned to observe the mother robin incubate her eggs, then watch both parents feed the nestlings.  Not so. One day the female and the eggs were gone.

Plenty of predators prowl around my yard.  A ravenous jay, crow, raccoon, possum, snake, or even chipmunk might have devoured the eggs and destroyed the nest. Last year Gray Catbirds screeched hysterically when a Blue Jay ate their eggs.

Besides the Robin’s, a Mourning Dove’s nest was high in my in my crabapple tree this spring.  While my nature-loving arborist was removing winter-damaged limbs, he exposed a flimsy nest with two eggs in the crevice of a broken branch.  He left it undisturbed.   From the ground I could glimpse a Mourning Dove’s eye peering at me from above the

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

My arborist found this Mourning Dove nest while removing winter-damaged limbs. Photo by Mark Masciangelo.

limb.  Again, I hoped to watch and study the birds’ breeding routine.  After a few days of viewing the brooding dove, however, I could no longer see the bird nor any activity.  Why did the nest fail?  Perhaps the arborist’s intrusive activity caused delayed nest abandonment.  Of course, a predator could easily have seen and raided the exposed nest. Thankfully, both the doves and robins will nest again—successfully, I hope.

Besides searching for nests, I’m also watching for signs of breeding.  Catbirds, cardinals, house finches, song sparrows must be breeding here. Pairs of birds, singing loudly and persistently, cavort in my yard.  Some birds carry nest material.  Others have insects in their beaks. When they don’t eat the food, they’re carrying it to a nest—a sure sign of breeding. I hope to discover the nest where nestlings are being fed.

Though I have not seen it, I believe a pair of Brown Thrashers has a nest on my property.  Most suburban yards don’t host Brown Thrashers, especially not a breeding pair.  Thrashers like dense shrubbery, not the typical manicured landscape. With their bills they sweep and probe the ground searching for insects and spiders in last year’s fallen leaves. I was plenty pleased when a Brown Thrasher spent the winter in my yard.  This reddish-brown, jay-sized bird with a streaked belly stayed silent and sheltered in the arborvitae and other dense vegetation. Every few days I saw it stray from its hiding place and feed on exposed ground.  I assumed it would move on in the spring to breed elsewhere.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground.  Photo by Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

A Brown Thrasher feeds on the ground. Photo by Howard Eskin. Click to enlarge.

In mid-May, a Brown Thrasher, possibly the same bird, sang vociferously from the treetops.  Its loud doubled phrases are different from its close relative, the smaller Northern Mockingbird.  The purpose of the song is to attract a mate and defend a breeding territory.  Even so, I assumed my wintering bird (or new arrival) was just practicing and would not stay to breed here.  When the singing stopped a week later, I concluded it had departed.

To my surprise in late May and June I’ve occasionally glimpsed a soundless thrasher. Males and females are indistinguishable, but sporadically I have seen two birds together.  Could a pair be breeding after all? The thicket of forsythia and blackberries at the back of my property is perfect for thrashers. Every few days I spend a few minutes peering into the undergrowth and listening.   Once I saw it deep, deep inside the dense vegetation.  On another occasion I discerned a barely audible whisper version of the thrasher song. According to my research, thrashers are mostly silent during the nesting season but sing softly in the vicinity of a nest.

Surely thrashers have a nest in my shrubbery.  It is probably just a few feet off the ground, but hidden in the impenetrable thicket. My chances of discovering it are slim.  Because they consider me a potential predator, the birds probably engage in evasive behavior to lead me astray.  Undeterred, I keep looking and listening.

I need a vigilant, alert ornithology student to help find the nest. A sharp-eyed young person could spot the bug in the thrasher’s beak.  Together we could find the nest.  See the baby birds. Watch their parents put insects into gaping mouths.  Observe the naked babies grow pinfeathers followed by juvenile feathers.  We would thrill to witness them fledge and take flight into the world of my backyard.  Alas, without my student, I evidently can’t be a voyeur of birds’ private lives.

By searching for nests, I’ve learned more about helping breeding birds succeed. I’ll plant more dense shrubs where birds can build and protect their nests. These shrubs will be insect-hosting natives instead of the non-native forsythia. Already I do not tidy up the thickets and corners of the yard.  Thrashers and other ground-feeding birds require the leaf litter to feed themselves and their offspring. Next fall I’ll welcome leaves into the perennial beds, too. And, most important, I’ll grow more native plants where birds can find plentiful insects to feed their young.

In some ways I’m unable to help and must trust the birds’ own survival abilities.  Predators abound, but the birds possess skills to protect their nests, eggs, and nestlings.  Vigilant and ingenious, they know how to keep their nest locations secret.  Thankfully, when a nest fails, most are able to produce a second brood.

It’s summer now, and I see lots of baby birds around the yard.  The nests are somewhere nearby. Birds are breeding here successfully.


Brown Gold: The Gift of Fall Leaves

By Barb Elliot

The brilliant yellow, orange, and red leaves are turning brown.  The beauty of autumn is fleeting and soon all the leaves will be on the ground.  This “leaf litter” is not trash.  The leaves nourish my garden.  They’re home to tiny creatures that are essential to my garden’s ecosystem.  These leaves are the gift of fall.

© Barb Elliot.  Click to enlarge.

© Barb Elliot. Click to enlarge.

Last year, instead of buying expensive mulch, I mulched with fallen leaves.  My trees and shrubs produce leaves abundantly and without charge.  Wherever possible, I left them to decompose where they fell.  I raked the rest from my lawn into my planting beds.   Also, I collected leaves from my neighbors and added them to my garden.  The leaves choked out the weeds, retained moisture, reduced erosion, and insulated the roots of my plants against winter cold.  A natural fertilizer, they added nutrients to my soil.  My plants grew remarkably well this year.

Leaf litter (or duff) offers exceptional benefits.  Myriad creatures live in the duff and play key roles in the healthy, diverse ecosystem of my yard.  Countless microorganisms and tiny invertebrates break down the leaves into basic elements that enrich the soil.  Bacteria and fungi accomplish the bulk of decomposition.  Invertebrates such as snails, slugs, and earthworms assist in the process and contribute to the web of life in the leaves and soil.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch.  Photo by Jarek Tuszynski.  Wikimedia Creative Commons.

American Toads eat invertebrates in leaf mulch. Jarek Tuszynski photo, Wikimedia Creative Commons.  Click to enlarge.

Many, many arthropods — creatures with exoskeletons and jointed legs — such as sowbugs, spiders, daddy longlegs, millipedes, centipedes, protruans, and double-tails play an important role, too.  Spring-tails and mites, the most numerous, are so small they are rarely observed by gardeners.  Many beneficial insects such as crickets, beetles, flies, bees, wasps, and ants also live in the duff.  All of these creatures are food for other invertebrates or larger animals such as salamanders, toads, and mice.  These in turn are eaten by birds, snakes, or larger mammals.  The large and small animals associated with the leaf layer form a natural predator-prey balance in the ecosystem.

We butterfly-lovers (and fellow moth-lovers, too) know the leaf layer shelters these winged beauties in their various life stages.  Numerous butterfly and moth species

Red-banded Hairstreak on Mountain Mint in Barb's yard. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Red-banded Hairstreak on Barb’s Mountain Mint. Photo © Barb Elliot.

overwinter in the leaf litter as eggs, larvae (caterpillars), pupae (chrysalides or cocoons) or adults.  For instance, the lovely Red-banded Hairstreak, which has visited my yard, lays its eggs on the underside of fallen sumac or oak leaves. When the eggs hatch, the caterpillars eat the leaves and then overwinter in the leaf layer as late-stage caterpillars or chrysalides.  Tawny Emperor butterfly caterpillars wrap themselves in a curled leaf and overwinter as caterpillars.


Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb's leaf mulch.  October, 2013.  Photo © Barb Elliot.

Woolly Bear caterpillar in Barb’s leaf mulch. October, 2013. Photo © Barb Elliot.

Isabella Tiger Moth - the adult form of a Woolly Bear.  Photo by Steve Jurvetson.  Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Isabella Tiger Moth – adult form of a Woolly Bear. Steve Jurvetson photo, Wikipedia Creative Commons.

Fuzzy Woolly Bear caterpillars are now searching for good spots under the leaf layer where they will hibernate for the winter.  In spring, each will spin a cocoon and emerge as an Isabella Tiger Moth.

The Luna Moth, one of our largest and most beautiful moths, overwinters as a cocoon in the dead leaves.  Unfortunately, when we treat our leaves as trash, we are also throwing out the butterflies and moths that will grace our yards next spring and summer.

Cocoons of the Luna Moth are found in leaf mulch.  Photo © Adrian Binns.

Luna Moth cocoons are found in leaf mulch. Photo © Adrian Binns.

Leaf litter benefits birds, too.  In my yard I see ground-feeding Eastern Towhees, Gray Catbirds, Northern Flickers, and sparrows picking through the leaves.  They find insects and other invertebrates to feed themselves and their protein-hungry nestlings. One spring, a migrating Brown Thrasher, a species I don’t see very often, foraged in the

Brown Thrashers find food in leaf mulch.  Photo courtesy of and © Howard Eskin.

Brown Thrasher. Photo © Howard Eskin.  Click to enlarge.

leaves of my flower bed.   Birds that nest in my yard search the leaf layer for nesting materials such as leaf stems, twigs, and moss.

In our society, we are expected to be yard “neatniks”.  We conscientiously rake or blow leaves into piles and then stuff them into bags.  Picked up at the curb, the leaves end up in a landfill or a huge “leaf compost” pile that smothers beneficial creatures.  Personally, I choose to keep all my own leaves and add those discarded by neighbors so they can decompose naturally in my yard.  Maybe you, too, will rescue leaves from neighbors.  If you want to start small, rake some leaves into a back corner of your yard.  Although shredding leaves speeds up decomposition, I refrain for fear I’ll destroy the insects and other animals living there.

I’m making a vow.  I will never again throw out next year’s butterflies and moths or the other animals that live in my leaf litter.  Dead leaves are a gift to biodiversity and the web of life.  Leaf mulch is brown gold.  I’m joining the new movement* to make fallen leaves socially acceptable as garden mulch.   I’m in!  Are you?



*Borge, Mary Anne.Red-banded Hairstreaks, Sumacs and Leaf Mulch”. Butterfly Gardener, Volume 18, Issue 3, Fall 2013, 9-11.

Bodin, Madeline.  “Every Litter Bit Helps”.  National Wildlife, October 1, 2005.

Johnson, Elizabeth and Catley, Kefyn.  Life in the Leaf Litter.  American Museum of Natural History, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, 2002.

Sutton, Pat.  A Love of Untidy Gardens and Why!  Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. 2011.