It is late in the summer, and most of the Cape Sable seaside sparrows have finished up breeding. The fledglings are now independent of their parents, and they form flocks that roam the prairies, exploring the habitat and seeing what the adult sparrows are up to. They have more confidence when they are in groups, and, like young humans, do not have much of an attention span.
‘What are you doing with that thing?’ ‘Oh, wait. I hear somebody singing. Let’s go over there.’ ‘Ooohh! She’s feeding babies in a nest. That is so cool!’ ‘Ha ha! The big monster just fell over into the water. That was funny!’ Or maybe they aren’t thinking all this; I’m just getting loopy from the heat.
This curiosity has a purpose: to learn the landscape, figure out where they want to hold a territory next year, and learn more about how to be a sparrow from the adults. Adults generally tolerate juveniles crossing their territories, although they usually chaperone the youngsters as they pass through. Some of the young males are already ‘practice-singing’ by now, although their voices are not developed yet and the songs are not recognizable.
The juvenile sparrows are attracted to taller clumps of sawgrass where they can hide and feel secure. They venture out into nearby shorter grass to forage, but will usually return to the clumps if flushed. We use this to our advantage to try and catch the juveniles for colorbanding. Colorbanded youngsters provide us with valuable information about overwinter survival, longevity, and dispersal across the Everglades. Some birds banded as juveniles or nestlings have turned up over 25 km away or have lived to be six and seven years old. Banding juveniles is also an excellent way to get females marked, since they are much harder to catch than the males as adults.
The net is set in the sawgrass clump and the juveniles are herded towards it. Sometimes juveniles will come over and fly into the net out of their own curiosity, although when they have been captured once, they usually become more wary. The unique color combination on each bird allows us to identify them without having to recapture them in the future, although the bands do fall off and need to be replaced about every three years. The three plastic-like colored bands are joined by an aluminum band with a unique number stamped on it; you can see the silver band on the juvenile below. This band will not fall off for the life of the bird.
“We are the future!!”