Henslow’s Sparrow Portrait

Henslow's Sparrow video placeholder image

I met my first Henslow’s Sparrow while exploring a hilltop meadow. I kept hearing what I first thought was a cricket chirp—an extremely high-pitched tsi-de-lick coming from thick grass in front of me. I searched in vain for the source, which seemed to move each time I approached. Then, just as I was ready to give up, a small mouselike bird flitted to the top of a weed stalk, threw up its head, and sang its tiny squeak of a song before dropping back into the grass. You call that a bird song?

Henslow's SparrowThe Henslow’s Sparrow is an inconspicuous little brown bird that breeds in grassy meadows in the Midwest and portions of the East (see range map). It was named by John James Audubon in honor of John Stevens Henslow, a British professor of botany who subscribed to Audubon’s early works. Surprisingly, Dr. Henslow never visited North American and never heard the sparrow’s simple song.

Roger Tory Peterson described the song as “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird.” Personally, I think it’s a grand effort and applaud the bird for practicing the law of parsimony—the judicious exercise of economy and frugality. The humble Henslow’s Sparrow accomplishes his goal with the least amount of fuss. By singing less, he impresses me more! Of course, one should realize that my interpretation is clouded by the limitations of human hearing. If I slow a song down using my computer, this “poor excuse” for a song transforms into a delightful musical cascade:

Henslow’s Sparrow songs. The first one is at normal speed, the second at about 1/4 speed, and the third at about 1/6 speed.

NOTE: The above text is excerpted from The Songs of Wild Birds, a book-and-CD by Lang Elliott, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

DAWN CHORUS: Below is a dawn chorus soundscape where you can hear the songs of a Henslow’s Sparrow rising above all the other bird songs. Birds sounding off in the background include American Crow, Wood Thrush (in a nearby wooded area), Grasshopper Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Prairie Warbler, and Common Yellowthroat. This soundscape was recorded at the same location that we gathered the video footage (see below for map).

Dawn chorus featuring Henslow’s Sparrow. 5 June 2009. Tri-Valley Wilderness Area north of Zanesville Ohio. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

ABOUT THE VIDEO: The footage for our featured video was gathered in the Tri-Valley Wilderness Area, a reclaimed surface-mined area to the north of Zanesville, Ohio. Bob McGuire and I visited the area in early June of 2009 and had good success with finding and videotaping birds.

Tri-Valley Wilderness Area


  1. Excellent! I have never seen or heard a Henslow’s Sparrow. They are quite rare in Michigan now. I’ve never been to the Tri-Valley Wilderness Area in Ohio. I don’t live horribly far from Ohio, so maybe I should go there to see some Henslow’s Sparrows.

  2. What a lovely post. I love the Henslow’s sparrow. I wish they were more common. Their song is certainly rich when slowed down to the level that birds are able to interpret. Oh, to be able to hear 10 times better in the time frame than we do.

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