American Birding Podcast



Skylarking Cassin’s Sparrows in Southeast Arizona

Monsoon season in southeast Arizona is always a fantastic time to go birding. Migrants move into the area to molt and replenish their stores while fledgling resident birds are flitting around – lots of activity. But even as the summer turns into fall, some of our local breeders give it another run while insect productivity is high. Out in the grasslands of Sulphur Springs Valley, the Cassin’s Sparrows are singing away, establishing territories for this round of breeding.

Walking around, enjoying the sound of the sparrows singing away, I count at least 10 individuals within a quarter mile radius. Most of these are skylarking, singing their song as they take off from a bare mesquite branch, spreading their wings and tails as they fly up and out, maybe 20 or 30 feet above the ground, then flutter their way to the next, nearby mesquite branch to sit, sing a bit more, then start over again. I notice the yellow near the carpals along the front edge of the wing and wonder what stands out to other birds with these skylarking individuals.

Wandering around I encounter a male singing, but not spending much time skylarking. Distracted by a molting Western Kingbird, I watch the kingbird scan in every direction as he watches the sky for insects, and presumably, predators as well. After a few minutes, I realize in the mesquite behind the kingbird, a pale Cassin’s Sparrow is giving its high pitched “psit,” and then I hear two!

As I watch, a second, slightly darker Cassin’s Sparrow moves next to the paler sparrow and they proceed to work their way through the branches, moving down into the mesquite. Watching more, I see the (presumed) male hop off away from the mesquite, calling back to its mate. They join again, and hop away into the grass, talking, talking.

Based on what I think are the territorial boundaries from observing a few days of singing, I feel sure this is the male that was not skylarking as much, and it seems it is because he is entertaining a mate! The Cassin’s Sparrows nest on or near the ground in grass or small shrubs using grass blades, weed stems, and other vegetative fibers to construct the nest, so the location for the communication and behavior of the pair seems very appropriate for nest site evaluation. What fun to see!

After the pair delved deeper into the grass, I moved away, not wishing to disturb them or disrupt the territory. There will be more opportunities to monitor their behavior and see what happens. Maybe I will be lucky and watch this family come to life!

To learn more about sparrows, their behaviors, and how to identify them, join Homer Hansen during the ABA’s Winter Sparrows of the Southwest IFO.  Many members have enjoyed this educational four day workshop observing 20 or more sparrow species.  The IFO will be held in southeast Arizona January 23-28, 2020.  For more information and registration details visit ABA Travel