Henslow’s Sparrows on the Prairie

DJB_SNR_2013_0557June 13, 2013

I’ll admit that the Henslow’s sparrow doesn’t have the heartthrob good looks of a yellowthroat or a cardinal but I’ve become fascinated with them over the last several years as they return each spring to the high prairie at Shaw Nature Reserve (SNR) to mate and nest. Don’t get me wrong—the Henslow’s sparrow is not without defining attributes, including a flat head, short tail, rusty wings, a nape of brown mustard, and freakishly long claws, but it is rarely referred to as “stunning” in any birding publication I’ve perused. But if you ever spend any time with this species you might still fall in love with its other physical and behavioral attributes, which include a reluctance to fly, as if it were a chore as lowly as taking out the trash, its propensity for spreading and fluttering its ragged tail when it calls, and the two-syllable call itself, which can only be described as….well….lame.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking the prairie and I found myself surrounded by Henslow’s sparrows on either side of the trail. All were actively foraging for food, I assume for nestlings. They didn’t seem too perturbed by my presence but I only stayed a few minutes before I skedaddled, leaving them to their parental activities. Before I headed on down the trail, I captured a nice image of an individual with a caterpillar, which I’ve featured in this post.

A couple of weeks later, I was returning home from a visit to the “coneflower glade” at SNR when I ran into a lone Henslow’s sparrow, singing its heart out. As always, I enjoyed watching it spread its tattered tail each time it let out its “tsi-lick.” I tried to get a nice shot of the behavior as shown in the second image of this post. I also was compelled make a video the tiny crooner, which you can see here. Be sure to watch the tail with each call as it spreads and flutters—cute!


The Henslow’s sparrow is listed as an uncommon summer resident in Missouri by Brad Jacobs, “Birds in Missouri,” and its status in the United States is concerning because of habitat changes that have occurred over the years. My favorite quick-reference site, “All About Birds” at Cornell University states the following about Henslow’s sparrows:

Declining in the northeastern portion of its range, and apparently increasing in some other parts, the Henslow’s Sparrow has been identified as the highest priority for grassland bird conservation in eastern and midwestern North America by Partners in Flight (PIF), a cooperative effort of many organizations dedicated to bird conservation. Henslow’s Sparrow does not have federally protected status in the United States, but is listed as Endangered in seven states, as well as Canada.

Although the status of the Henslow’s sparrow in the United States is worrisome, I’m confident that its status in my neighborhood is pretty good and I hope to see one in my own little prairie—only a few miles from SNR as the sparrow flies—some spring in the future.

Thanks for Looking,


Henslow’s Sparrow with Caterpillar:  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Extender; 1/160 @ f/7.1; ISO 200; RAW Capture; Converted and Processed in Canon DPP

Singing Henslow’s Sparrow:  Canon 1D Mark IV; Canon 500/4 L IS Lens with Canon 1.4 TC III Extender; 1/320 @ f/7.1; ISO 200; RAW Capture; Converted and Processed in Canon DPP

12 comments on “Henslow’s Sparrows on the Prairie”

  1. Beautiful shot, the little guys are hard.

  2. Thanks for pointing out the freakishly long claws (and nails) and the fluttering tail. I’m so glad SNR makes a good home for these little sparrows. I love the olive colored head and the double mustache markings. Thanks for sharing the images and the video, always love your posts!

    • You are very welcome Brenda. I’m glad you liked the little video along with the rest of the post.

  3. That’s a pretty big, juicy supper its go there!

  4. MUST go again to Shaw Nature Reserve. It’s impossible to do this with public transportation, and you make it MUCH harder with images like these! (Er, thank you for the lovely images, anyway!)

  5. Hi Danny, I am just now getting the time to comment on your last unique shot ,of the little scrapper, [Henslow Sparrow]. What a great frame, with the caterpillar in its beak.perfect timing on your part. Thanks for sharing, I loved it.


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