Take a look at the sparrows in your field guide and you’ll note a bewildering array of near lookalike species. Only with a fair amount of study do these “little brown jobs” start to become easier to sort out. The lark sparrow, however, is a notable exception with its distinctive head pattern and colors, the bold spot on its breast and its broad tail with white edges. It is a denizen of south-central Washington’s shrub-steppe landscape.
When and where to look: Lark sparrows arrive from their wintering grounds in the American Southwest in early May, later in spring than other shrub-steppe sparrows. They depart south soon after nesting, too. Compared to other sparrows of the shrub-steppe, lark sparrows are generalists, the least choosy about their habitat. Indeed, they often seem to occupy disturbed or weedy-looking shrub-steppe. Bitterbrush in Hardy Canyon, part of the Oak Creek Wildlife Area, is a good site, as is the nearby North Wenas Road. In the Lower Yakima Valley, look along Pumphouse Road, and also along US-97 south of Toppenish, in open shrub-steppe along Satus Creek. North of Sunnyside, the wide open grasslands host this sparrow, too. Elsewhere, this is a species commonest west of the Mississippi River. Smaller numbers occur east to Ohio in suitable habitat.
How to spot one: It’s utterly distinctive for a sparrow with its bold head stripes and pretty hues of black, white and chestnut. Young just out of the nest have a duller pattern, the only time this species might cause confusion. Their loud song, with lots of buzzes and trills, carries far, and, once learned, another sure identification mark.
Chow time: Mostly insects in the summer when in Washington, which is mostly what the young are fed. In winter, they favor seeds as well as waste grain.
Home life: Courtship antics by the male include singing its loud and distinctive song from tall shrubs in its chosen territory. On the ground, it may woo its prospective mate by strutting while spreading its tail wide open, showing off the white corners in the tail. Apparently, these flashy white corners are really alluring. The nest, built by the female, is an open cup structure of twigs, weeds, grass, and animal hair. It can be either on the ground or up in a shrub.
Three-to five eggs are laid and the female does all the incubation for about 11 to 13 days. Once hatched, both parents bring food to the young. The young leave the nest after about 10 days. By early August, lark sparrows join other species of shrub-steppe sparrows (Sagebrush, Vesper, and Brewer’s) and wander about the sagelands, slowly drifting south to snow-free desert scrub habitats in borderland states.