Bird Files: The Shy Henslow's Sparrow

  • The Henslow's Sparrow song is short, buzzy and often called a 'hiccup." Photo Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren

May 22, 2015

The Henslow’s Sparrow is a shy bird that announces its presence with a short buzzy song as it skulks in the tall swaying grasses of wide-open meadows.

This song­­­—often called the Henslow hiccup—might sound more like an insect than a bird to the untrained ear. But it might be the only evidence that one is around.

Once common on the tallgrass prairie, the Henslow is now in decline and listed as threatened or endangered in 12 states—mostly due to a major loss of grassland habitat. In Pennsylvania, it is considered protected and is designated as a species of greatest conservation need.

If you are lucky enough to see one, expect a small dark looking bird with a short tail, large yellowish-looking head and stripes on its face and chest. 

One of the largest concentrations of Henslow's sparrows in Pennsylvania is in Clarion County in a place called Mount Zion, also known as Piney Tract. This is a 6,400-acre area of reclaimed strip mines that was designated as an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society in 1998.

The Piney Tract’s weedy, and sometimes wet, grassy habitat is just what Henslow's sparrows like. There are plenty of insects to eat and, most importantly, lots of places for these reclusive birds to hide.

So, if you’re near a large grassland in central Pennsylvania or even Ohio, listen for its two-part hiccup or its barely audible tsip call.

And if you hear either one, you’ll know it’s a healthy grassland—one that can support these endangered birds.

Bird calls for the audio recording of this segment from The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, recorded by Curtis Martinez