A sparrow found “in abundance” in Canada’s province of Labrador with the name of Savannah will remain high on the list of misnamed birds. Outside of Labrador, John James Audubon regards the Savannah sparrow as “one of the most abundant of our Finches.” This actually means in most cases hearing the bird rather than seeing it. The Savannah sparrow “confines itself principally to the ground, where it runs with extreme agility, lowering its body as if to evade your view, and when in danger hiding as closely as a mouse.”
It was in 1821 that John James Audubon completed his drawing of the Savannah sparrow for Birds of America. Audubon placed the bird in clear view along with Joseph Mason’s drawing of Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica). Indian pink grows mostly in mountain forests and woodlands of the mideastern United States. The plant’s pink flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds. Savannah sparrows encountering Indian pink would most likely occur where the plant is growing on a forest edge or on the occasion it takes root in grassy, open areas.
Wherever Indian pink grows, it is easier to find today than it was when Audubon and Mason were searching for birds and plants. In 1763, Dr. Alexander Garden was living and working in Charleston, South Carolina. He wrote to another doctor that “About forty years ago, the anthelmintic virtues of the root of this plant [also once known as “worm-grass”] were discovered by the Indians; since which time it has been much used here by physicians, practitioners, and planters.” The ability to rid people of intestinal worms almost wiped out the plant by the early 1800’s. Indian pink fought back by inflicting severe side effects and recovered by the early 1900’s.
Audubon notes that along places like the Mississippi River where there are “swampy places, damp meadows, and the margins of creeks and rivers,” the numbers of Savannah sparrows are “immense.” Would this number be as many 8,000? This is the number that Erik Johnson and his party saw on January 5, 2012, near Creole, Louisiana. Creole is located close to Louisiana’s Gulf coast just west of the mouth of the Mississippi River. “An incredible movement of bird as at dusk leaving an extensive (100+ acres) Sesbania field, crossing the road from N-S at knee-level in droves (up to 100 in view at once), streaming past on both sides (east and west) of us for about 20 minutes.” Indian pink is recovering from Anglo-European consumption. The juggernaut of development and loss of habitat makes the fate of the Savannah sparrow much less certain.