The Baird's sparrow has a problem - and he's not helping his own cause.
The smallish, brown-streaked bird with an ochre-colored slash running down the back of his head lives almost exclusively in native prairie of the northern Great Plains. As native prairie grass disappears into cropland across his nesting range, his numbers decline.
But because the Baird's sparrow is so secretive, it's difficult for biologists to determine just how precarious the bird's situation may be.
Baird's sparrows would rather dart amongst grass than flush. An extremely reclusive bird, they usually only perch when singing in the early spring and summer. They forage (feed) on the ground eating insects and seeds, moving slowly amongst grass clumps. It takes experienced birders - and sometimes lucky ones at that - to add a Baird's sparrow to their life list. More often it is accomplished by hearing their call rather than seeing the bird. Looking to add the Baird's to your life list? Take some time to learn and recognize the call because of the fact that visual sitings are so unusual.
North Dakota's prairie was believed to be home for abundant numbers of Baird's sparrows before the arrival of man's plow. But with civilization and modernization also came loss of precious habitat.
What native prairie remains does not always equal good Baird's sparrow habitat: Problems such as non-native plants like Kentucky bluegrass, leafy spurge and smooth brome grass, livestock overgrazing and fire suppression have all led to a decline in the diversity and vigor of native plants. Without native plants for food and nesting cover, Baird's sparrows cannot raise the next generation - so their numbers continue to dwindle.
Portions of North Dakota do continue to provide good habitat for Baird's sparrows, including the northwestern and the east-central parts of the state - geological areas called the Missouri Coteau. Baird's sparrows can also be found nesting east of the Lake Sakakawea/Missouri River area.
Several important areas harboring Baird's sparrow habitat include national wildlife refuges such as Arrowwood in east-central North Dakota, Audubon in the west-central region and Lostwood or Upper Souris in the northwest. A birder may chance upon a Baird's sparrow in other parts of the northwest, upper Souris River valley or the southwest 's Theodore Roosevelt National Park as well as on other wildlife lands such as waterfowl production areas.
Although not much is known about the birds or their population numbers, biologists have found that Baird's sparrows do not like prairie thickly laden with litter - layers of dead vegetation. What they have found is that two or three years after fire, such as a controlled burn, Baird's sparrows usually become more abundant. And they like open areas with a mix of somewhat more native prairie grass blended with forbs. But the more shrubs, the less Baird's sparrows.
Perhaps it is ironic given the Baird's sparrow's plight, that it was discovered and named in 1843 by naturalist and artist John James Audubon in honor of a young assistant, Spencer Baird, destined to become a distinguished ornithologist.
Baird's sparrow facts
About 5 1/4 inches in size.
Coloration: ochre median crown stripe, narrow band of fine black streaks on a light- colored breast with yellowish-brown head, brownish-streaked body.
Summer range in northern Great Plains, parts of North Dakota, Montana and the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.
Winters in parts of Texas, Arizona and Mexico, arriving in October and November.
Only female chooses nest site and incubates eggs although both parents tend to young.
Prefers mixed grass native prairie and forbs without excessive grass litter or heavy brush.
Three to six eggs in nest with an average of five.
Eggs grayish-white and heavily marked with reddish-brown spots.
Incubation period of 11 to 12 days.
Nestlings spend eight to 10 days in the nest and depart with the parents while still flightless.
Feeds mainly on insects and seeds.
Young eat only spiders and insects.
One brood per year.
Song is two or three high "zips" ending with lower pitched trill.
Scientific name: Ammodramas bairdii