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Thursday, 23 April 2020

Chipping Sparrow (Bruant familier)

    Few birds are more common throughout than this gentle and harmless little bunting. It inhabits the towns, villages, orchards, gardens, borders of fields, and prairie grounds. It is almost as abundant as the Domestic Sparrow in Europe, and is nearly as familiar, though otherwise different in its habits.
John James Audubon

     Most non birders, if pressed to describe a sparrow, will call to mind the familiar House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), and will in most cases assume that a sparrow is a sparrow is a sparrow. House Sparrow is not in fact native to North America and is considered by some to be unwelcome. It certainly mounts a disturbing level of competition for many of our native species and is aggressive in its quest to thwart others for nesting sites.


House Sparrow, male

House Sparrow, female
     Depending on the current state of taxonomy there are about 130 or so species of New World Sparrows, found only in the Americas and on some Caribbean islands. It is one of the great challenges for a novice birder to learn to identify many of the similar species, often known as LBJs (little brown jobs).
     I have a great deal of fondness for this family, and they engender feelings of delight each time I see or hear them.
     A few days ago I spotted our first Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina) of the spring in our backyard, and each day since there have been two individuals; today they were joined by a third.



     This tiny little sparrow (a mere 12 -14 cm from the tip of its bill to the end of its tail) is an unqualified favourite among our backyard patrons, and we were elated to see it return to spend another season with us.



     I was surprised to see that it appears to have a marked fondness for cracked corn. I have been putting out a dish of this feed each day for the Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and as a means of distracting the squirrels away from the bird feeders. The Chipping Sparrows have returned to feed on it time and again. 



     Chippping Sparrows prefer to nest in conifers from a metre to about 15 metres above the ground, and a pair nested one year in an ornamental cedar at the front of our house. This nest was parasitized by a Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater) and the eggs of the host species were ejected from the nest.



     Here you see the eggs of the Brown-headed Cowbird in the Chipping Sparrow nest.



     A word or two about Brown-headed Cowbird, the most common obligate brood parasite in our area. 


Brown-headed Cowbird, male

Brown-headed Cowbird, female
     This species was originally a bird of the western plains, and followed the great herds of American Bison (Bison bison), feeding on the insects kicked up by the hooves of the wandering animals. In fact, the cowbird was colloquially known as Buffalo Bird.
     Upon extermination of the bison (one of the less enlightened actions of white settlers) the bird moved eastwards to where forests were being cleared and domestic cattle introduced to the land, thereby replicating the conditions found on the prairies. Having been part of the western landscape for millennia, bird species parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird had evolved various defence strategies to mitigate its impact, and the overall effect on host species populations was negligible in most cases. Eastern species, Chipping Sparrow among them, had no experience with brood parasitism and the cowbird success rate is much higher, causing serious impacts to many local populations, and in the case of Kirtland's Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) threatening the very future of the species.
     Purely as a point of interest, I am showing the egg of a Brown-headed Cowbird laid in the bag used to transport birds caught in a mist net. It is the only time this has happened in my experience.



     When the cowbird is successful in introducing its egg(s) into the host species' nest, its young are raised by surrogate parents, often at the expense of the young of the victimized species. 
     It is natural, I suppose, to have pity for the host species, and no doubt I have shared this emotion from time to time. In fact, perhaps we should be rejoicing in the degree of sophistication and success achieved by the obligate brood parasite who does not exercise choice in this matter, and is simply following its genetic code to reproduce in the way it is "programmed" to do.
     For four years in a row, Chipping Sparrows have fed Brown-headed Cowbird young in our backyard.


     The size disparity is apparent at a glance and the Chipping Sparrow above looks weary of feeding this gargantuan offspring!
     We have also had other species, Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) for instance, with cowbird offspring in our backyard, and they seem to be unable to resit any large youngster gaping and posturing at them, for they will deposit food into the nearest mouth.




     All is not once-sided, however, Chipping Sparrows have also brought their own offspring to visit.



     This bird has captured a large prey item and is posturing at us.


     I wonder whether this choice bundle of protein and fat is destined for young Chipping Sparrows or whether another Brown-headed Cowbird has succeeded in taking over the nest? In either case, we wish them well.
     Nature is eternally fascinating!
      

77 comments:

  1. Wonderful photos!
    I learned something new about Buffalo Bird.
    Thanks :)

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  2. A smart, dove-grey crown to the head, a crisp weave of chestnut and buff in the wings make up quite a distinctive logo for a little brown bird. I love the tiny little house sparrow!

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  3. Hari OM
    Fascinating indeed, and, as you say, one must beware over-sympathising anthropomorphically as nature is as nature does... but it is part of human nature to do so, and no shame in that either! YAM xx

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  4. Strange to see the tiny sparrows feeding those hugs babies. But wonderful that they are such good parents! There are no sparrows here, the crowd and nappies seem to scare them away. Have a great day, hugs, Valerie

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  5. I love sparrows and you are so right that there are so many of them. Here I just see the regular three or four kinds. One of my friends checks the nests on his property just to see if the brown headed cowbird has laid where it shouldn't have(as we think of it). They are quite plentiful here in Ontario and he often finds an egg or two to discard.

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    1. Now I am curious as to what you regard as the " regular three or four kinds!" May I also point out, with the utmost respect, that what your friend is doing in interfering with the breeding activity of native species is illegal.

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  6. Chipping Sparrows are among my favorite winter visitors in my yard. They are the cutest of the sparrows, in my opinion.

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  7. Let's hope a chicken comes out of the egg.

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  8. Our Cuckoos are also brood parasites like your Cowbirds, but it is rather wonderful that you have been able to watch this strange phenomenon being carried out in your own backyard.

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    1. The very term "cuckold" originates with your familiar Common Cuckoo. There is an excellent monograph on this species by Nick Davies. Highly recommended reading.

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  9. How strange that some birds lay their eggs in other birds nest. We have a bird here in Norway who is named Cuculus canorus, and it does it too David.

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  10. Hola David, preciosa entrada, me encanta las fotos en las que alimentan a sus hijos. Un abrazo enorme.

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  11. Hello, I love the cute Chipping Sparrows. Amazing capture of the Chipping Sparrow feeding the Cowbird. Happy birding. Have a great day!

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  12. Thank you for the information. What great photos!

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  13. Stunning photos, so nice to see these wee birds up close.

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  14. Hi Both
    The poor little Chipping Sparrow is dwarfed by the young Cowbird, all very similar to Cuckoo.
    Stay safe and well,
    My best wishes.

    John

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  15. I have totally enjoyed these captures by Miriam. No doubt patience and a good eye and camera!

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  16. I have a huge weakness for the sparrow family. Subtle charmers and like so many of the LBJs with a beauty of their own.
    'Upon extermination of the bison (one of the less enlightened actions of white settlers)' One of MANY unenlightened destructive actions made by white settles - historically and today.

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    1. Of that there is no doubt, Sue. Clear cutting of forests breaks my heart.

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  17. Buenas noches querido amigo, me acabas de descubrir a este bello pájaro, hubiese jurado que es un gorrión común, se nota que soy un neófito en la materia. Sin embargo, si sabía que algunos pájaros pueden criar a otros que no son de su especie. Cuando antiguamente criaba canarios muchas veces los huevos de alguna hembra que o bien los abandonaba y dejaba de incubar se los colocaba a otra hembra y esta sacaba adelante a otros canarios que no eran los suyos. Siempre tan interesante y aprendiendo algo nuevo de mi querido amigo y profesor David.
    Recibir un fuerte abrazo de vuestros amigos Carmen y Juan que seguimos con el confinamiento.

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  18. Great to see all of these fabulous photographs, and those feeding shots are wonderful.

    All the best Jan

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  19. We see several kinds of sparrows here though I have never seen a Chipping Sparrow. What a lovely looking bird. I enjoyed your photos David!
    PS. Hope you enjoy the banana bread! 😁

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    1. And since Chipping Sparrows are not found in Europe you are not likely to see one, Marleen. The banana bread was delicious. I had a slice this morning with homemade raspberry jam! I wonder how many of us will gain weight during this Coronavirus?

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  20. It is difficult to accept the behavior of the cowbird, as we are the cause by eradicating the plains bison, so we must leave it at that as our intervention will probably make things even worse. Very good species to highlight.

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    1. I have no problem with cowbirds being cowbirds. Their behaviour has not changed, but we have made conditions perfect for them in areas of the continent where ancestrally they did not occur.

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  21. I confess to always considering sparrows LBJ's, until I moved to this trailer park. Here the only variety of bird is sparrow, so I figured I'd better learn more about them. The first sparrow I identified was a chipping. What a thrill, to pick out one from fifty others.

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  22. Truly fascinating and interesting! Thank you for coming to my blog! Be safe!

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  23. Hola David, como estas! oh, yes, nature is eternally fascinating. Sparrows are smart and versatile, strong and resistant but they are also fragile... sometimes they go unnoticed since they are everywhere. They are angels that are all over the world.
    Saludos, and i hope my "special" english is understood jaja =D

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  24. Bien gracias querida amiga. Your knowledge of English is fantastic! Muchos abrazos y besos.

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  25. I agree, nature is definitely fascinating. Here we have shining cuckoos that take over the nests of grey warblers with the same result of tiny birds feeding huge chicks. Fortunately the grey warbler often breeds twice, the first brood usually being hatched before the cuckoos arrive back in spring.
    Your chipping sparrow is a handsome wee bird, very pretty :)

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  26. As more and more birds have begun coming to my feeders, I've noticed two species of sparrows. One is the common house sparrow, but the other is enough different that I'll need to spend some time identifying it. I'll say this -- watching (and listening!) to the parents and young is fascinating. I certainly know when they're around; those young are demanding.

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  27. Both Chipping Sparrow and Cowbird are new to me. Lovely photos - thank you.

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  28. Lovely to see visitors to your garden.
    Nice photos and I like those little ones feeding :)

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  29. J'ai vu une seule fois des moineaux chez moi, et ils faisaient beaucoup de bruit!
    Nous on a le coucou, en ce moment je l'entend chanter tous les matins.
    Je ne savais pas qu'il y avait autant d'espèces de moineaux.
    Bonne journée

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  30. What a loveley birds that Chipping Sparrow. The Brown Cowbird is like a Cuckoo here in Europe with that behaviour laying eggs in other birds nest. It is amazing these birds always lay their eggs in nest of birds much smaller in sice then themselves. The House Sparrow once was brought by the imigrants from Europe. They could not miss the sound of European birds with the great problem for domenstic birds. The sad thing is that these birds are now in big trouble here because they loose habitat to live in and raise chicks.
    The photos taken by Miriam are wonderful!
    Take care,
    Roos

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    1. I should point out too that the photographs without a name are Miriam's too. Until relatively recently she didn't put her name on them.

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  31. I am afraid that a sparrow is a sparrow to me, but perhaps I will now recognize the Chipping Spaarow. I hope so. I know the cowbirds can't help it, but I still resent them.

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    1. Just as long as you passively resent it, and don't try to interfere with the natural process.

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  32. Son preciosas las fotos y el momento oportuno que has capturado. Tu reportaje, nos acerca a ese mundo tan hermoso de las aves.

    Que tengas un buen día.

    Besos

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  33. We used to get quite a variety of sparrows in the feeders at our former VA home and they provided endless hours of entertainment and photo opportunities. I had known of the cowbird's opportunistic tendencies in raising their young. The images of the small sparrow feeding such a large offspring made me wonder if they knew the bird was of a different species. Thanks for the distinction between sparrows.

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  34. We used to get cowbirds in our feeder in North Carolina. I always hated their parasitism but had never looked at it from the way you did, they are programmed to do this and it is in their nature. The English cuckoo is another as you know hence the word cuckold.

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  35. I had no idea about the cowbirds, how wonderful to witness this with the Sparrows in your own back yard!

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  36. David ...
    Lindíssimo trabalho fotográfico.
    De grande carisma e sensibilidade.
    Um abraço de Portugal.
    Megy Maia🌈

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  37. What an interesting post, I love that little Chipping sparrow it is a pretty little bird but it must be hard bringing up a hungry monster! Of course here we have dozens of House Sparrows but I do enjoy watching them. Take care, Diane

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  38. Hello David, this is an interesting post on the Sparrows and Cowbirds. Great photos.
    Thank you for linking up and sharing your post. Take care, stay safe! Enjoy your day, happy weekend. PS, thanks for leaving me a comment.

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    1. Glad you found it interesting, Eileen. We have also encountered Yellow Warblers as host parents for cowbirds. One male we found was feeding two Brown-headed Cowbird chicks.

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  39. Hi David - Miriam's photos and your explanations are just wonderful. I must say - cowbird thugs - but as you say 'nature is just eternally fascinating' ... couldn't agree more. Beautiful colours - the chipping sparrow in particular ... and the eggs ... I loved the bird's egg book (the Most Perfect Thing' by Tim Birkhead - you recommended a while ago. Many thanks ... take care - Hilary

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  40. Some dismiss sparrows as a nuisance, but I find them fascinating. There are so many varieties. I'm not a fan of the cowbird. Happy Saturday!

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    1. I don't think we should be be rating birds as to whether we like them or not. They all have their niche in the natural order of things and we should simply accept that. To do otherwise is to start making the kinds of judgements about birds that we already make about people, based on visual and behavioural differences which are different from our own. And you know where that leads!

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  41. We have these little Sparrows and love to see them under the feeders. They like to eat the seeds that fall on the ground which is better than watching the squirrels get them! Beautiful photos my friend! Take care and have a good weekend!

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  42. Excellent photos David, beautiful sparrows. I love the chipping sparrow, beautiful colors. You have beautiful birds in Canada. Greetings Caroline

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  43. David, nature is really fascinating and always surprises me.
    When I saw the photos, I felt sorry for the sparrows.
    Magnificent photos.
    Have a good weekend, with joy and health.

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  44. I've seen Brown-headed Cowbirds up at our cabin on rare occasions. I think that might be because they are only passing through while migrating elsewhere. - Margy

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  45. We love to see our little chippies come back in the spring, too. Where from, I don’t know, but they were here in force a couple weeks ago at our feeders and now have moved on.

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  46. Un buen e interesante reportaje, me encanta lo bien que lo documentas. Un abrazo querido amigo David.

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  47. Hello. Interesting post and photos. Thank you so much. Take care.

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  48. Hi David,
    It is a surprise for me that the common cuckoo is not the only bird with its typical behaviour in the spring. Sparrows you can find all over the world. When you don't look carfully they look like each other a lot. With us there are two different kinds, of which the house sparrow is the most common. The kind you described, with the pictures of Miriam as a perfect way to recognize them, is a new one for me.
    Greetings, Kees

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    1. There are other cuckoos too with the same habits, and several other cowbirds, and of course the honeyguides of Africa.

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  49. When I see the wide range of sparrow species that you have on that side of the pond, David, and the identification issues they present, I'm rather glad that we have just the two, easily recognisable, species here!

    As always an interesting, informative, and beautifully illustrated read.

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  50. hello David
    I only know that from the cuckoo cuck,
    learned something again, very nice, thank you ....
    greetings Frank

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  51. Really interesting post. Specially engaged by the photo where the bird seems to have turned to snarl, wide open red beak, at someone or something.
    It's difficult not to have 'emotions' about the behaviours of other creatures. Here, in England, we are disconcerted by the way Cuckoos parasitise the nests of other birds yet are thrilled whenever we hear it call or even fly across the view. It is almost as if we think it is two birds; one the harbinger of spring, the essence of countryside - particularly English countryside, I think; and the other emerged from a horror movie.

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  52. I'm a;ways in love with the little ones, whether birds or kids. The chipping sparrow is cute and close to my heart.

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  53. heh heh jeg elsker denne posten!Først med den kooo koo en som forlanger å bli matet av den lille spurven hih hih ja det er egentlig ikke morsomt men jeg må nå le likevel :))))

    Vi har mangen spurver!Vi elsker dem her i Norge(I Spania spiser de dem og selges på boks)
    Akuratt nå bygger de rede i vinterhagen min!

    Jeg har ikke sett den lille før Chipping spurven!Den var søt!Minner meg litt om den Goldcrest -

    Veldig flott innlegg og fint dere er på tur igjen!Tror våren har komt lengre borte i Amerika enn her i Norge..Jeg har hørt en måke unge på taket men parringen holder stand med hele dagen og natten

    Ønsker dere alt godt!Kos dere!

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  54. Ha ha ha, we got one of that birds, Cuckoo takes of say the Reed Warbler, they both react in country.

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  55. Un gran trabajo sobre el Gorrión, un pájaro al que adoro y que la población de esta especie en Europa está descendiendo considerablemente. Con este post he descubierto más subespecies americanas, gracias por compartir David. Un abrazo desde el norte de España. Salud!!!

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  56. Isn't this fascinating! I knew of this behavior, but I've never seen photos of it! Excellent.

    Thanks for linking this week at I'd Rather B Birdin'

    Stay happy, healthy
    ~ Anni

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  57. your Chipping Sparrow has very nice coloring. But being "parent" of this young is no fair. :( But that´s life.

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  58. Hi David, thank you for this interesting story and for the wonderful photo's from Miriam aside. This Chipping sparrow is a very handsome species. The photo's where the young Cowbird is fed are great. I wish you a great time watching the birds in your garden.

    All the best for you both,
    Marianne

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  59. They are so lovely your birds,
    Hope you are fine in this special times,

    Ida

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  60. Un articolo molto interessante. Da noi in Italia è il cuculo a comportarsi in quel modo e i suoi piccoli, ospiti di un altro nido, fanno di tutto per rimanere i soli ad essere accuditi dai genitori adottivi. Grazie per il post e buon pomeriggio.

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    1. Thanks for your first visit to my blog. It is very much appreciated.

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  61. Very interesting post, with the sequence of species of Passerellidae, which are few in my country. What is very common to me is to see birds parasitized by Shining Cowbirds, very numerous around here, parasitize many species of native birds, I also sometimes share the feeling of pity when seeing a sparrow feeding a big cowbird

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  62. Fantástico reportaje del gorrión amigo. Tuvist un agradable visitante. La naturaleza siempre nos asombra.
    Cuídate David
    Desde casa te mando este abrazo 🙅

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