|Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia. (Wicki photo,Ken)
Here was a woman, trained as a scientist who produced a remarkable account of the life history of the Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, simply by making detailed notes on her observations of this common species which she studied in her backyard and surrounding neighborhood for many years. No lab needed or wanted.
When I was at St. Louis University in a research master’s program, our lab did extensive studies on the Song Sparrow. At that time, the National Science Foundation helped support research into the inheritance of species-specific song. So, we isolated birds in sound proof enclosures and recorded their vocalizations.
However, I was allowed to study Song Sparrows in their habitats, too. I trudged through meadows and savannahs in and around St. Louis, Missouri making notes on my observations of this species and tape recording their calls and songs. I got so that I could easily identify Song Sparrows by their calls alone as well as by their song. Later, I did some field work at the University of Wyoming Research Center in Grand Teton National Park where Song Sparrows share habitat with Lincoln’s Sparrows and Fox Sparrows.
By observation I learned that Lincoln’s Sparrow is smaller than the Song Sparrow and with no dark spot on the breast. The Fox Sparrow has a dark spot on its breast but is larger than the song sparrow and chunkier.
Lincoln’s Sparrow and the Fox Sparrow had their own species-specific flight patterns and, of course, the songs were different than the Song Sparrow.
I wish I could have had the opportunity to thank Ms. Nice for her wonderful book on Song Sparrows. If I had not read her book, I might never have learned how important detailed observations are to an animal behavior project.. I might have thought that not being able to control the environment would lead me to unscientific results.
My experience was just the opposite. I was able to observe Song Sparrows in natural situations. To see males hop higher and higher until they reach a perch from which they would sing is something I could have never seen in a lab. Bobbing movements as they flew from one tree to another; “sneaking behavior” as the female indirectly returned to a nest which was well-hidden in a bush; males singing against one another to establish territory, these are behaviors I would never would have seen in a controlled laboratory environment.
I made notes carefully in day journals which became the basis of a small scientific contribution to the study of this species. Thanks, Ms. Nice.
Sources: Nice, M. M.. “Studies on the Life History of the Song Sparrow,” Dover reprint, 1964. Out of print but available used from Amazon.com.
Cornell University’s website is very helpful in differentiating Fox, Lincoln’s and the Song Sparrow.http://www.birds.cornell.edu/brp