Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Harris's Sparrow Mystery Part Three...Conclusion

Once the American ornithology party had set up camp in northern Canada, they began an earnest search for the Harris's Sparrow's eggs. They spent their days hiking through acres of grasslands and along the forest edge looking for birds that seemed to be nesting or building nests. Maybe, if they were lucky, they could even startle a bird up out of its nest. George M. Sutton wrote, "
George M. Sutton
We watched certain pairs by the hour, and found them so amazingly non-commital about what we supposed to be their 'territory' that we began to wonder whether we were anywhere near the actual nesting grounds. The birds would feed together for long periods in the morning, walking along among the mess and grass; kicking vigorously, like Fox Sparrows, through leaves and debris; then mount the low bushes, wipe their bills quickly, and fly to some far-distant part of the woodlands, where it was often impossible to find them. " The hunt had become frustrating but by mid-June, all the birds they observed seemed to be mated. " At this season the males so frequently sang in a chorus that it was sometimes difficult to separate a single song from the medley which sounded through the woods. "

The Canadian enclave was camped a mile away. The rivalry between the two groups and even among members within each group was friendly but each dearly wanted to be the one to first lay eyes on the sparrows' eggs. While the Americans used a studied and orderly method of searching, the Canadians had developed a bizzare and very noisy searching technique.
One quite day, the Americans, who were accustomed to the pristine silence of such a remote place, were startled by a loud din of banging and clanging. The Canadians had resorted to marching across the fields while beating on pots and pans hoping to scare up nesting birds. At first, this was amusing but soon become quite irritating. This unsettling racket continued for days but the long search was about to come to an end.
On June 16, 1931, the honor of being the first scientist to see the Harris's Sparrow's nest filled with eggs was bestowed on George Miksch Sutton, the young man who would later be know around the world for his art and birds studies.
After walking a long distance through wet woods, he saw a Harris's Sparrow picking at its belly with its beak, as if it had just come from a nest. He quitely watched the bird for a long time without moving. After marking the spot where he saw the bird, he walked away. He returned a few minutes later splashing through the water and noisily pushing through the bushes. When he was within 12 inches of the Harris's Sparrow's nest, he flushed the bird and found its nest.
The nest was on a soft bed of moss, a few leaves, and weed stalks. The lining was made of grass. The eggs were partly covered by a few sprigs of Narrow-leaved Labrador Tea which were then in bud.
George Miksch Sutton later described the excitement of finding the nest. "As I knelt to examine the nest a thrill the like of which I had never felt before passed through me. And I talked aloud! 'Here!' I said. 'Here in this beautiful place!' At my fingertips lay treasures that were beyond price. Mine was Man's first glimpse of the eggs of the Harris's Sparrow, in the lovely bird's wilderness home."
In the next three weeks, nine more nests were discovered.
This ends my story of the Harris's Sparrow mystery and the only bird to nest in Canada and nowhere else. But the mystery still continues. Its changing migration route needs to be studied. Are its numbers dwindling? The coloration and markings which differ from individual birds is a fascinating subject to be persued.
It is a testament to Man's love of birds that the sparrow has been so studied. Perhaps by observations, you can add to the knowledge of the Harris's Sparrow.