Readers’ wildlife photos: song sparrow

January 3, 2014 • 10:53 am

If sparrows were rare, we’d find them far more beautiful than they seem to us now. Stephen Barnard sends us a photo of one with this caption:

A newly discovered subspecies of Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia narcissus, contemplating its reflection. (It’s actually eating midges.)

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I love its various shades of brown, white and gray, and those attractive stripes on the head.

56 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos: song sparrow

    1. Canon EF500mm f/4L IS USM + 1.4x III
      Canon 5D3
      ISO 2000 700mm f/9.5 1/3000
      hand held, no blind

      Their songs in the breeding season are very nice. I’ll sometimes play their songs on my iPhone and get them to respond.

        1. It’s excellent because of its high ISO performance. I rarely shoot at less than ISO 2000. A fast shutter is critical when shooting hand-held with this lens and extender, even with a stationary subject.

      1. Thanks Stephen. Very nice work! You must get to spend a lot of time outdoors.

        Predicted HIGH here on Monday: -18°F (-28°C). I won’t be spending time outdoors Monday …

        1. Depends on the camera + lens combination. In general, all modern Canon bodies can generally autofocus with lenses with an f/5.6 maximum aperture — and the 500 f/4 with the 1.4x becomes a 700 f/5.6. Not all autofocus points will work, and autofocus performance won’t be as fast.

          Some Canon cameras, including Stephen’s 5DIII, can autofocus with some f/8 lenses (with one of the recent firmware updates from Canon).

          You may find this page of interest:

          The link at the top takes you to the manual which lists all the Canon lenses; Roger provides all the common third-party lenses.



        2. No, the extender takes the lens to f/5.6 and autofocus works fine. With my f/5.6 100-400mm zoom the extender takes the lens to f/8 and autofocus still works, although I had to do a firmware update on the camera. Canon has excellent customer service and I’m very happy with their products.

          1. Yeah, I love my 1.4x telextender as well even though I got from f/4 to f/5.6. I’m tempted to get the 5D at some point to use with my 7D but I’m cheap & want to get it used because I just bought the 7D this summer.

              1. Yeah it will be a while before I open my wallet enough but I’ll let you know if I do.

              2. Since you’ve got the 5DIII, if you’re not familiar with the 7D, you might want to consider renting or borrowing before buying. There’re damned few real-world situations where the 7D tops the 5DIII, even when the specs on paper suggest it should. You might encounter one of those; when you’re focal-length-limited such that you’re cropping significant portions of even the APS-C frame away…but a 5DIII shot cropped to the 7D field of view is going to beat the uncropped 7D image, despite the fact that the 7D image has significantly more pixels.

                That writ, the 7D might be the second-best second / backup camera for you (with the first-best being another 5DIII, of course). Keep the 500 on the 5DIII, and put the 70-200 on the 7D for when something unexpected happens, for example.



              3. I just want something to keep in the car. I think the 7D with a 100-400mm zoom would be the ticket. The 500mm is a pain to cart around.

              4. The 7D with a 100-400 should make the perfect “Oh, shit — is that what I think it is!?” emergency car kit wildlife camera.


              5. Ben,

                As for the 5DIII being better than the 7D ..
                Sure .. but keep in mind you’re comparing a $2900 camera with a $1200 one here!

                (Btw, I have a 7D with the 100-400 lens, and I absolutely love it. Of course I would love to have the F4 500 lens, but here too .. that’s a $1600 lens compared to a ~$10,000 one!)

              6. I recommend the 1.4x extender for your 100-400mm. It works well with mine and extends the reach for not a crazy amount of money.

              7. I often lecture myself to work with my equipment and when I do so, I remind myself that there are people who take really great photos with the 7D. Notably, Chris Jiménez who takes pictures of animals in the rain forest of Costa Rica whose settings for his 7D I copied 🙂 & Alex Wild, who takes spectacular insect (esp ants) photos.

                I still have my 60D which I will be putting in my car with my 75-300mm zoom because I drive through the countryside to work & sometimes see animals I wish I had a decent tele to get photos of.

              8. There’re some very significant physical specification differences between the two that would superficially appear to give the 7D a big advantage over the 5DIII in certain scenarios. Specifically, the 7D can shoot at 8 frames per second, while the 5DIII can “only” do 6; and the 7D has 7.3μm pixels while the 5DIII has much lower resolution 6.25μm pixels.

                Just looking at those figures, one would think the 7D would be much better at action photography, and that you’d get better results from a 7D + long lens than a 5DIII + teleconverter + long lens (with each having a same field of view) or especially a 5DIII cropped to the same field of view as the 7D (with many fewer pixels).

                However, the reality is that the 5DIII has an autofocus system that is so far superior to the 7D’s that, in any given seconds-long burst of an action scene, you’re going to have more in-focus frames with the 5III than with the 7D. And the noise and other characteristics of the 5DIII are so superior to the 7D that, even when you crop away half of the frame with the 5DIII and are left with far fewer pixels than a similar image from a 7D, the 5DIII image is still sharper and cleaner.

                The same can be seen with the 1DX, which has a lower-resolution sensor than the 5DIII but still produces (slightly) superior image quality. The 1DX, on the other hand, has the same autofocus system as the 5DIII and an 11 frames per second shutter, so it obliterates the 5DIII as an action camera. Still, the 5DIII is on a par with every action camera from every earlier generation,* which is mind-blowing: wedding camera image quality with sports camera performance in a $3,000 camera…that’s unprecedented.



      2. The use of playback recordings is a divisive and contentious issues among birders and bird photographers. There is concern that recordings may cause harm to birds many of which employ camouflage, like the coloration of the Song Sparrow, and skulking behaviors to avoid detection.

        David Sibley, author of the Sibley field guides, has written what is perhaps the most reasoned policy statement on the subject and encourages a limitation on the use of recordings in the field.

        1. I use playback very little, but it’s great fun sometimes — certainly less intrusive than calling Mallards and Canada Geese into my duck blind and shooting them, which I don’t do any longer, but allow some hunting friends to do. When I lived in northern California where Northern Mockingbirds were common it was fun to get them to respond to whistles. I’d try to imitate common birds like robins and they’d fall for it. They were especially active at night during a full moon.

          “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” — Oscar Wilde

          1. Whenever I’m out and not in an hurry and there’s a mockingbird chatting up the neighborhood, I’ll try to strike up a conversation — and generally succeed.

            I’m trying to think of a rational evidence-based argument for why that’s a bad thing to do, and utterly failing. Other birds in other settings, perhaps, but not these birds in this setting.

            Clearly, therefore, absolutism on this subject is unwarranted. Rather, as in all of life, it’s judgement that’s called for.



            1. The male mockingbird is clearly (to me) using his repertoire as a sexual display and probably as a territorial challenge to other males. They typically sing from the highest, most visible perch. The more sounds he can imitate (including slamming screen doors and barking d*gs), and the louder, the more bad-ass he is. It’s an unusual adaptation. I can’t think of anything similar.

              By communicating with him you are expanding his repertoire and hence his fitness. 🙂

              1. There are a few colonial endangered birds that are in trouble now because they don’t hear enough other birds of their species to get their hormone levels up for breeding. Black-capped Vireos may be examples. For birds like that, playback can actually be helpful.

                On the other hand, constant playback for particular species at a single location does have an effect on their behavior and possibly on their population levels, in my experience. I therefore try to avoid repeated playback nowadays.

          2. Something I’ve been intending to do (but failing at because I’m lazy and cheap) is to record bird calls with some good equipment. In the summer it’s an orchestra.

  1. I like sparrows & even the more plain house finches. I think they are always so contemplative looking.

  2. Reminds me of the gardener Andrew Mason’s remark: “If dandelions were hard to grow, they would be most welcome on any lawn.”

    1. From what I understand, like many birds, dandelions were brought to North America by Europeans. In the case for dandelions as food.

      1. The book 1493 by Charles C. Mann covers the ecological changes that occurred, many of them profound, after what he calls the Columbian Exchange. I was astonished to learn, for example, that earthworms were not native to North America, and that their introduction radically changed the character of forests.

        1. 1493 is a very interesting book. Well recommended.

          Also, 1491, about the world before the fateful Columbian contact, is also very worth while reading.

        2. Some earthworms are introduced, but there are plenty of native ones too. Notably the giant one in the Palouse Prairie in the NW. There’s an even bigger one in S America, a couple of ft. long I think.

          Earthworms are worth learning a bit about for two reasons:

          1.) Darwin wrote a whole book on them.
          2.) Their distributions are impossible to explain under the flood hypothesis. They don’t tolerate flooding well, can’t have migrated to and from any ark, and many have distinctly limited distributions.

      2. There is one native dandelion species in N America (Taraxacum californicum), a local endemic to mountain meadows in S CA. Naturally, it’s severely endangered.

        How it happened to be only in one small area so far from the rest of the dandelions would be interesting to know. Must be the result of an ancient dispersal event, followed by speciation, unless there was just a big range contraction for Taraxacum as a whole that left one species isolated.

        1. I’m probably one of the few people who actually don’t mind dandelions. They burst out in June here and then go to seed and that’s about it. I used to feed them to my guinea pigs because my lawn has no chemicals on it so I knew it was safe for them to eat.

          Luckily, I live in the country, so having a few dandelions on your lawn doesn’t turn you into a criminal in they eyes of your neighbours. 🙂

          Interesting about the one native species. I didn’t know about it. Perhaps conditions elsewhere before we started having lawns & pastures, were not conducive to its survival.

          1. Dandelions are a blessing! In early spring, in my neck of the woods, they are gathered (the whole plant) before they produce a flower, washed and the leaves separated, and served as salad. A bit bitter but delicious, and extremely healthy as they clean the blood – a good thing after winter – among many other health benefits.


            Then, we also use the flowers to make dandelion wine – it tastes like honey! It too has health benefits.


            And the cream of the cream of dandelions is dandelion liqueur!


  3. Stephen Barnard, your photos are incredible. You probably already knew that, but I’m compelled to repeat. Truly awesome photographs.

    1. Thanks. I enjoy sharing photos and it’s always nice to hear when someone likes them. The wildlife is pretty scarce now in the middle of winter, but things will pick up in the spring.

  4. I see a very disappointed little bird – raised believing he was a cardinal, now seeing he is only a sparrow.

  5. Well done, as always.

    One of my planned projects is to photograph urban wildlife, even including pigeons and sparrows. Of course, I’ve got a few projects ahead of that one….


  6. Sparrows — mostly English, but also Song, White-throated, and White-crowned — are the most frequent guests at our feeders. They are always in the vanguard, first to try out a new feeder, sample a new kind of suet, take a dip a new birdbath, land on a lily pad just to see what happens. Scruffy, combative, audacious little survivors; gotta love ’em.

  7. Lovely photo, Stephen. My husband and I love sparrows (we live in Switzerland, so it is the common sparrow). We frequently feed them when sitting on café or restaurant terraces. They are very smart little birds, and the braver among them will fly up to our hand and stand on a finger or the hand itself to peck the food we are holding out to them. They are remarkable “pilots”, too, and can fly straight through the openings of nets to descend onto a “protected” terrace to feed. They zoom through and fold back their wings a microsecond before arriving at the hole and shoot through it, then open their wings as soon as they are through. They repeat that when flying back up and out. Amazing!

  8. I think the sparrow has a ‘don’t mess with me’ look.
    Sparrows are lovely to watch. When I take a bit of time to observe, I like to see the different ‘personalities’ within groups of them at my feeders. It’s mostly the house sparrows in the city of course, I only see song sparrows during spring migration.
    Keep the great photos coming Stephen!

  9. To hard-core birders, all species seem to be equivalent. At least to the one I know, who I accompanied on a day away from the meeting we were attending in Santa Fe. We left around 2am, atopping at Carlsbad Caverns so he could see Cave Swallows and I could see the Caverns. Then off to Rattlesnake Gulch TX, 300mi from SF and which doesn’t seem to be on any maps online, to see Cassin’s Sparrow. After two hrs tramping in the sagebrush and admitting defeat, we left, only to stop abruptly after ~50meters when he heard it. And then got to see it. Returned to the meeting in time for the BBQ.

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