November–December 2023


The Unexpected Guest

For a weary traveler, a puny patch of prairie looks like a welcome mat.

Jonathan C. Slaght

My son, now 11 years old, is not a birdwatcher. But as I’ve taken interest in his hobbies over the years he’s paid attention to mine. He can’t distinguish a downy woodpecker from a hairy, but he can identify most of the common species that visit the bird feeder at our Minneapolis home. And given my interest in merlins—small falcons and neighborhood residents—he can also pick out their calls and point at their swooping forms as they terrorize the local songbird populations. He’s not a birdwatcher, but he knows birds. And so, in June 2019, when a bird he did not recognize showed up in our backyard, he flagged it as notable and came to tell me. It’s really small, he said, and acting strangely. You should come take a look.

I followed him around the house and he pointed at a tussock of big bluestem grass, one of two that my wife and I had planted ornamentally a few years prior along with other natives: purple coneflowers, black-eyed Susans, and various milkweeds. There, among the tan stocks of last year’s grassy growth, crouched a LeConte’s sparrow.

I was stunned: LeConte’s sparrows were a notoriously difficult species to spot. These are creatures of grassy, wet, open spaces like marshes and meadows; a species more often heard than seen. They spend their days low to the ground under tall dense grasses foraging for insects, collecting seeds, and leading secretive lives. They are often described as “mouse-like” given their propensity to run from threats rather than fly off, weaving among the shadows of vegetation to frustrate predators hoping for a bite-sized snack, or birdwatchers eager for a quick glimpse of a lifer species.

My boy and I watched the bird’s behavior. It skulked about the tussock of big bluestem, peering out at us, then dropped to the ground, raced to the cover of a cedar hedge to forage among the litter underneath, then darted back to the safety of the tall grass to blend out of sight. This bird was on its way north from the American South—most winter close to the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida panhandle, then migrate to the Upper Midwest and the prairie provinces of Canada to nest. In Minnesota, most breed in the northwest and north central parts of the state, but they can sometimes be found in southern Minnesota during the breeding season as well.

We went inside to give this rare guest the space and time it needed to refresh before continuing its journey north. I checked
later in the day and it was still there in the grass, but by morning it was gone.

What struck me most about this encounter was how singularly devoted the sparrow was to that one patch of grass. We didn’t have a yard full of native vegetation as some homes in our neighborhood did. But this bird still found and appreciated our tiny refuge. I was reminded of a trip I took to Seoul, South Korea, a few years back. I saw a Caribou Coffee shop there and instinctively went in for a drink. It was a connection to home in an otherwise foreign place; I found comfort in it. Perhaps the LeConte’s sparrow had a similar reaction. Big bluestem was something that this bird recognized, something familiar in the strange landscape of the city. The structure of the stalks was like the walls of home; the seeds were comfort food.

It can be overwhelming to ponder the impacts of habitat loss on Minnesota breeding species like LeConte’s sparrows. But we can still help. We don’t need to convert our yards to native grassland if we don’t have the time, skill, or funds to do so. A tussock here or a patch there might be enough, something modest to offer a migrant rest on its long journey to its breeding grounds. This LeConte’s sparrow was proof of that. Species that need or find comfort in native vegetation will seek out, find, and appreciate it.