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Vesper Sparrow
Pooecetes gramineus
Order
PASSERIFORMES
– Family
EMBERIZIDAE
Authors: Jones, Stephanie L., and John E. Cornely

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Introduction

Adult Vesper Sparrow, Colorado, July
Figure 1. Distribution of the Vesper Sparrow.

“I hear a bay-wing [Vesper Sparrow] on the railroad fence sing - the rhythm - somewhat like char, (or here here), che che, chip, chip, chip (fast), chitter, chitter, chitter chit (very fast and jingling), tchea ttchea (jinglingly). It has another strain, considerably different, but a second also sings the above. Two on different posts are steadily singing the same, as if contending with each other, notwithstanding the cold wind.”

Henry David Thoreau in his Journal entry for 13 April 1854 (Thoreau 1984).


Across grasslands, open valleys, and arid steppes, the beauty and exuberance of the setting sun is often matched by Vesper Sparrows, as they fill the evening with sweet song while affirming the passing day and appealing for safe passage through the coming night. The naturalist John Burroughs described the tinkling song of the Vesper Sparrow as particularly sweet and splendid in the evening, resulting in the name “Vesper.” This species sings in the morning and during the day, but often continues its double-noted song into the twilight of vespers, after most other birds have become still.

The Vesper Sparrow is a large, pale, brown-streaked sparrow with white outer tail-feathers and rufous lesser wing-coverts. Prior to the 1880s, it was known as the Grass Finch, the Bay-winged Bunting or Sparrow, and the “Hesperian Bird.” The Latin and Greek roots of its scientific name refer to its grass-dominated habitats (Pooecetes meaning “grass dweller” and gramineus meaning “fond of grass”).

A ground-dwelling species, it prefers dry grass fields, with some shrubs or similar structure, and is found in open habitats, including old fields, shrubsteppe, grasslands, and cultivated crop fields. In many areas the species responds quickly to changes in habitat; it is often the first species to occupy reclaimed mine sites and will abandon old farm fields as they return to forest.

The Vesper Sparrow was present but probably rare in its eastern range before European settlement; by about 1900, however, the species was considered common throughout its eastern range and one of the characteristic species where forests had been cleared. Today, it is undergoing a dramatic decline in the East as abandoned farmland reverts to forests. In the Midwest, it currently depends on row-crops and adjacent uncultivated lands, while, in the West, it continues to be common in shrubsteppe and open rangelands.

L. B. Best and colleagues used the Vesper Sparrow as the subject of many studies on the of birds to croplands (Best 1983; Rodenhouse and Best 1983, 1994; Best and Rodenhouse 1984; Perritt and Best 1989; Best and Gionfriddo 1991; Frawley and Best 1991; Camp and Best 1994; Stallman and Best 1996); it has also been included in studies on responses to habitat disturbances (Best 1972; Whitmore 1979a, 1979b; Wray et al. 1982; Schaid et al. 1983). This spe-cies has been the primary subject of studies that expanded our understanding of nestling development (Sutton 1935, 1941, 1960; Dawson and Allen 1960; Dawson and Evans 1960) and avian physiology (Salt 1954, Ohmart and Smith 1971, Swain 1987). Vesper Sparrows have also been the subject of studies on the ecology of grassland birds (Askins 1999), particularly in Maine (Vickery et al. 1992a, 1992b, 1992c, 1994, 1999) and the western and central United States (Wiens 1969; Rotenberry and Wiens 1980a, 1980b; Wiens and Rotenberry 1981, 1985).