The Golden Song Sparrow
still remember my first trip out of Tasmania to the 'big island' of mainland
Australia. Walking into specialist bird shops was a luxury that I had never
been fortunate enough to experience before. Whilst at the Burwood Pet Shop
in Victoria I spoke to the proprietor, Jock Hobbs, and marvelled at the
variety of finches available in his shop cages. As I was about to leave he
said, "I bet you have never seen a pair of these before." With a magicians
flourish he produced a budgie show cage from beneath the counter and, with a
grin, turned the cage to face me.
'These' were a pair of Golden Song Sparrows, (Passer luteus). Until that moment I had only heard about them or read articles on them in bird magazines. The birds I saw were rather non-descript nervous birds which left me a little disappointed and wondering what the fuss and the price tag were all about. That was a number of years ago and it was to be many more years before I was to see them again.
A phone call one morning from Les Lenton at Birdsville, a Sydney bird outlet, with an offer of 4 pairs of Song sparrows was too good to pass up. When they duly arrived they were half coloured and all 4 males were a dull yellow with the chestnut mantle just beginning to appear. My own 2 pairs of these went straight to nest and produced 14 young - 12 females and 2 males! But I still found these birds to be secretive, nervous and very drab - that is until I went to Cessnock! For it was at Cessnock that I finally got to meet John Butler whose aviary profile you might remember from The Just Finches magazine. After finally meeting John at his home we were invited out back to view his birds and aviaries. What song sparrows! Instead of the insipid, buff coloured males that we were used to there were these beautiful lemon males that shone in the NSW sunlight. Intending to make a complete idiot out of myself I suggested that these males must be a great age – "Last years young ‘uns son, only last years!" Negotiations were entered into and 3 of these males were taken back to Tassy to enhance our bloodlines and many people who saw them did not believe that they were the same species!
After having waded this far you are probably wondering what the actual theme of this article is, funny that!!
The Golden Song Sparrow or Sudan Golden Sparrow, (Passer
luteus), is a 12-13cm long seedeater with dimorphic sexes. In their
natural state they hail across the dry Savannah and semi desert of the
southern Sahara region of Africa and are considered as being common, but
nomadic, across much of their range. As previously mentioned, the cocks can
be a striking lemon yellow on the head, breast and chest while the mantle,
back and shoulder areas are a dark chestnut colour - a marked contrast to
the yellow portion of the body. Males also have a black bill that becomes
more pronounced as the breeding season approaches. This black on the beak is
often the first sign that your youngsters are going to be males.
At the onset of the breeding Season, usually September/October down here, the males emit a constant machine-gun like 'chipping'. If you are unsure of this 'descriptive definition' open your window, listen to a House sparrow, Passer domecticus, and multiply the noise by 10!! They leave you in no doubt that they are members of the sparrow family! Following this you will observe the males carrying twigs and small sticks to a potential site for their nest. We supply our birds with pliable 18cm lengths of green willow and gum - a diameter of around 5mm gives them something to think about! If you really wish to drive your birds mad give them longer sticks and watch the hilarity as they endeavour to fly these 'girders' up to their nests!
However, before you get the impression that all these guys must be avian engineers some of our pairs just use a humble budgie-type nest box and leave the construction to their more energetic cousins. You can see from the pictures the contrast in styles. The pictured nest in a Genista bush measures 22cms in width and is 32cms high. The actual nesting chamber sits on the very top of this structure and not, as you might expect, in the middle. However, this season (2005) one pair in the front aviary beat even this structure with a nest that was built on a window ledge! It hung precariously into space and had a hidden nesting chamber right at the bottom nestled firmly against the window!! The nest hung 15cms over the ledge and would rock when the birds landed on it!
There is very little material that they wont use to construct their nests so it is essential that you supply copious amounts of feathers, cotton wool, shredded tissue, coconut fibre, basically anything…in order to prevent them from 'nest robbing' from neighbours to complete their own nest. Regardless of the size of the nest the inner egg chamber is filled with soft feathers and cotton wool that provides very comfortable and insulated bed for the developing chicks.
Two to four eggs are the normal clutch and the parents are devoted carers to their chicks - that is, as long as you provide PLENTY of live food! However, should you return from work and find youngsters on the floor then most pairs will tolerate you simply picking them up and replacing them in the nest – easy in nest boxes but not so easy in stick nests! This year I bred from a number of first year hens – given that 11 out of 12 youngsters from last year were hens it was no real problem! – And they experienced a lot if infertility and many would throw young from the nest even when the bowls were brimming with live food. Most of the chicks were around a week of age and I simply fed them by hand and replaced them in the appropriate nest box and the majority reached maturity. One chick was thrown out 6 times before his parents decided enough was enough and reared him dutifully! Much of this behaviour was possibly due to there being ‘hens without partners’ as there were only 2 adult males yet 4 hens were nesting!
You should expect 3-4 nests from the average pair. The same nest is often
reused for subsequent clutches but some pairs will construct a new nest. One
interesting observation that two breeders have made is that these birds do
not appear to actively search for live food even when feeding chicks. My
birds are fed in an inverted plastic rubbish bin lid and if the mealworms
travel down to the handle area and are covered by bran they are not eaten -
I have lost chicks when the parents were 'fooled' into believing I had not
left them any live food in this manner! Another breeder has related exactly
the same behaviour in his birds. Perhaps we are pampering them too much!!
Anyway, it is 'food for thought' when setting up their feeding stations.
They were also loathe to go into plastic tubs full of mealworms which I
placed on the aviary floors when they had youngsters.