Dear Bird Folks,
I was lying by my pool this morning when I noticed a steady stream of tiny ants walking under my chaise lounge. As I watched the ants go about their business, a small, friendly brown bird appeared and began eating the ants. It was very cool. My question is: What kind of bird do you think I saw and do a lot of birds eat ants?
– Pam, East Orleans, MA
Darn you, Pam,
My first inclination was to tease you about wasting your day lying by the pool. I wanted to suggest that instead of bothering me, you should have had your pool boy, who was probably dressed in a little sailor suit, answer your questions. Perhaps in between his towel folding and iced tea-serving duties, he could identify that bird for you. But instead of giving you a hard time, I want to thank you. Thank you for appreciating the ants and their value to our ecosystem. And most importantly, thank you for not running into the house for a can of insect spray. Earlier this summer I spoke with a couple who was upset because a family of baby wrens had mysteriously died while still in their nest. The couple wanted to know what had happened to the baby birds. I had a few thoughts and then I asked if anyone had been spraying around their yard. That’s when their eyes fell to the floor. Poison has the nasty habit of affecting more than just its intended victims. Even the lowly ant is an important member of our community…maybe not as important as a pool boy in a sailor suit, but important nonetheless.
It is thought that there are over ten quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000) ants living on the earth at any given time. This massive food source readily finds its way onto the menu of all sorts of creatures, including many birds. The most noted ant-eating bird in these parts is the Northern Flicker. Flickers, which are Cape Cod’s largest woodpeckers, often spend their day on the ground, leisurely sucking up ants. But flickers are too big to be the bird you saw under your chaise lounge. Based on the color (brown), the size (small), the diet (ants) and the reported friendliness, I think your ant-consuming bird was a sparrow, most likely a Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows have a varied diet, which sometimes includes ants. Plus, they are attracted to chaise lounges for some reason and no one knows why.
Most likely, you have seen Song Sparrows around your pool before; this is because they are everywhere. Song Sparrows are in my neighborhood, they’re in your neighborhood and they’re in your butler’s neighborhood. According to Massachusetts’s most recent breeding bird survey, Song Sparrows are found in more neighborhoods than any other bird, and that includes such familiar species as finches, cardinals and even chickadees. But despite all of their commonness, Song Sparrows often go unnoticed. Part of the reason they are overlooked is their brown coloring. No one ever gets excited when they see brown…unless they are expecting a package from UPS.
Another problem is their relaxed personality. Song Sparrows spend most of their time poking about on the ground looking for seeds, as well as ants. They will also come to our feeders, but they don’t arrive loud and large, Blue Jay style. They usually just grab a few seeds and hope no one is looking. But for all their plainness, there is one thing Song Sparrows do better than most other birds. As their name suggests, Song Sparrows like to sing, and sing, and sing some more. (Their Latin name is, in fact, Melospiza melodia. So there.) Songbirds typically sing in the spring and usually only in the morning. But this sparrow can be heard just about anytime of year and anytime of day, even in the middle of the night. As I write this column, a Song Sparrow is singing just outside my window. Really. If you are going to learn one bird song in your life, it should be the song of a Song Sparrow.
What does a Song Sparrow sound like? It’s hard to describe a bird’s song in print, but some observers claim it sounds like the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I’m sure that doesn’t help you much because it doesn’t help me, and I know what they sound like. The best way to learn the Song Sparrow’s song, or any bird’s song for that matter is to do a little fieldwork. Try to locate the bird and watch while it’s singing. Seeing (and listening) to a bird sing really helps it sink in. And fortunately, Song Sparrows are always singing and are easy to find. So, you could learn this bird’s song by either doing a little fieldwork, or by studying Beethoven. I’d vote for the fieldwork. Because Song Sparrows are regularly victimized by cowbirds, I used to be worried about their future. Each summer I’d watch the tiny sparrows struggle to supply food to a giant cowbird chick. I assumed that the sparrows’ babies had long since succumbed to starvation. But such is not always the case. It turns out that Song Sparrows are quite capable of feeding both their own kids and the demanding cowbird baby as well. How about that? Song Sparrows can sing and provide food at the same time, just like an actor at a dinner theater.
Once again, Pam, thank you for peacefully watching the ants and not running into the house for a can of nasty poison. The ants, the birds and the entire ecosystem appreciate your restraint. As a reward for your good deed, I think someone should bring you a nice ice tea. I’d be glad to do it, but my sailor suit is at the cleaners.