Vesper Sparrow in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, December 2018, No 282.

Photo by Jean Iron


One of the best places in Ontario to hear and see the uncommon Vesper Sparrow is the Carden Alvar. The name Vesper comes from its habit of singing well into the evening twilight hours when its song sounds the sweetest.

IDENTIFICATION: The Vesper Sparrow’s white outer tail feathers flash junco-like in flight, but can be hard to see on perched birds. The species is then identified by its bold whitish eye-ring and rufous shoulder patch (lesser coverts) at the bend of the wing, sometimes covered by other feathers.

SONG: Its song usually begins with two clear unhurried whistles followed by faster trills and twitters. The Vesper sings mainly in the early morning and late afternoon from an open perch on a post, wire, shrub or treetop.

HABITAT: The Vesper Sparrow breeds in dry short grass fields with scattered shrubs and trees used for singing and escape cover. Of all Carden’s nesting sparrows, it prefers large fields with the shortest grass, often with patches of bare ground. Its habitat is enhanced by cattle grazing, which helps keep grasses short and sparse.

HABITS: Watch and listen for Vespers along quiet dirt backroads. They spend much of their time on or near the ground and like to take dust baths. Flushed birds normally fly to an exposed perch where they can be viewed.

STATUS: Historically the Vesper Sparrow was mainly a prairie bird that increased in the East when pioneers cleared forests for farming. Like most other grassland birds, it is declining in Ontario due to more intensive farming, earlier haying, fewer hedgerows, less pastureland, marginal farmland reverting to forest, and urbanization. The Carden Alvar remains a stronghold in Ontario for this disappearing sparrow.

BEST PLACE: It’s a delight listening to Vesper Sparrows sing at nightfall after many other birds go silent. A scenic spot to hear a Vesper at sunset is from the parking lot near the viewing blind on Wylie Road, overlooking a broad expanse of Carden Alvar Provincial Park.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for proofing and Jean Iron for the photo.