Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Harris's Sparrow Mystery Part Two

Once it was realized that the plains states were only the Harris's Sparrow's winter home, the quest was on to find out where they really did nest. Several theories were published until Edward A. Preble found breeding pairs at Churchill, Canada in 1902. The famous naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, in 1908, found the species common from Great Slave Lake northward to the edge of the Barren Grounds, and discovered a nest with young almost ready to leave on August 5th. Because the sparrows breed in such a remote area, they were one of the last North American song birds to have their nests discovered.

Their nests are shallow hollows in the ground, lined with grasses or, occasionally, caribou hair. .Most clutches consist of four eggs; average clutch sizes are higher in the northern part of the species’ breeding range.

By 1929 the young George Miksch ( pronounced, " mix " ) Sutton had established himself as an extraordinary bird artist. So much, that he was hired as the assistant curator of the Carnegie Museum. He was also receiving several commisions for his artwork. His bird studies also earned him great respect Among the ornithology community. In 1925 he accepted the position as Pennsylvania's State Ornithologist.

In 1929 George resigned from his position as state ornithologist to prepare for a trip to South Hampton Island, Canada with the purpose of finding the nesting ground of the Blue Goose. South Hampton Island lies just south of the arctic circle near the western mouth Hudson's Bay and is now part of Canada's Nunavut Territory. It has a rocky tundra landscape with elevations of almost 2000 feet and level areas that are almost sea level. Amid the harsh climate and frigid conditions, Sutton's party was indeed succesful at finding the nesting area of the Blue Geese.

In 1931 George headed north again. This time to Churchill with a party to discover the Harris's Sparrows eggs. Nearly a century had passed since it was discovered and the bird's eggs had yet to be seen.
The region was almost inaccessible during the nesting season. The completion of the railway to Fort Churchill finally made travelling there much easier. When they arrived at Churchill May 25 they found 2 feet of snow on the level and drifts 20 feet deep. Temperatures ranged from 28° F. to about 60° F. during the day. They first observed Harris' sparrows there on May 27. "By June 7, we had at least thirty pairs more or less definitely located in an area of five square miles; we had not, however, witnessed a single action indicative of nest building."

However, to their surprise, they made a starling surprise. A Canadian team of ornithologists with the very same goal was camped nearby.

Next time part three or scholars with pots and pans.


  1. As a novice birder, I don't know all the history so I find this really interesting..I guess I should read more than my guide books and the books I have on bird behavior.. My daughter is now set up with a bird feeder and bird bath.. I wish I had started earlier....Michelle

    1. Thanks Michelle. I've enjoyed writing this post. Part of the story I got from George M. Sutton himself. He was a remarkable man.

      I know what you mean about starting earlier. I think the same thing whenever I start something new but I try not to worry about it and just enjoy what I can.

  2. I just noticed that you taught special education on a reservation. I became interested in the history of some of the Native Americans when researching my family tree. I only started reading about it this winter starting with the plains and moving east..I guess I should have started east and moved west...A rich history and a lot of sadness....

    1. Thanks Michelle for the comments. Yes, I taught kids from the Passamaquoddy tribe. I taught grades one to 12. In other words, I was the whole special ed. department. The kids had a lot of problems, but I really cared about each one.

  3. This is a great post Gene, I really enjoyed reading it.