Saturday, March 6, 2010

Sparrow Me the Details

A Field Sparrow at La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie State Reserve

Something has long puzzled me about the popular portrayal of birders—and it's not our image as humorless, pith-helmet-wearing ninnies tiptoeing pretentiously across the savannah with binoculars nerdily jammed to our (generally pale and unattractive) faces. It's the baffling phenomenon in which writers, trying to sound as though they get what we're doing, always citing the phrase "little brown jobs". This term, they inform the reading public in a confidential whisper, is a central example of birdwatcher cant; it's what birdwatchers call all those plain little brown birds—such as sparrows—that nobody can tell apart.

There are a couple of problems with this: First, birders never actually say "little brown jobs". At least, in my five or so years of birding, I've never heard a serious birder say that. For that matter, I've never heard a casual or even a newbie birder say that. And I have no clue where people get the idea that we do.

The other falsehood behind the mysterious "little brown job" meme is this: While it's true that many birders find sparrows and some other small birds frustrating to ID, this is not because they are so plain. On the contrary, it's because sparrows have hellishly complex plumages, on tiny, fast-moving bodies. (This distinction is somehow lost on journalists with looming deadlines and no binoculars.) And the difference between a common yard bird and a rarity could be a tiny difference in color on exactly the part of the bird that's currently being obscured by a branch.

As some of my students would say, "That's SOOO unfair! How can you expect us to do something SOOO HARD??"

But this challenge is part of what makes birding so entrancing, even when it makes you want to rip your eyeballs out.

Here's an example: This, I'm pretty sure, is a Savannah Sparrow:

And this is a Song Sparrow. I think:

In a birding class I took back in California, I learned that a reliable way to tell Savannahs and Songs apart is that Savannahs have a yellowish wash on their "eyebrows", while the Songs have a solid gray color. This seems to hold for the birds pictured here. However, I learned from a reliable source that the Savannah Sparrows out here don't always have that yellowish wash above the eye.

The other common diagnostic for Song Sparrows is the presence of a dark spot in the center of the chest. However, my reliable source says this isn't a foolproof diagnostic, either; sometimes Song Sparrows lack it and other sparrows have it. The Savannah Sparrow above, for instance, seems to have a nice little splotch on its chest.

But—my sparrow-maven friend reminds me (and I keep forgetting)—tne thing that's unlikely to vary no matter what strange pose the bird hits is its overall shape and proportions. Here's another Savannah Sparrow; its tail looks noticeably shorter than that of the Song Sparrow:

Ergo, the second bird up is a Song Sparrow. Maybe.

Just to show that not all sparrows look alike, here's a Grasshopper Sparrow:

We saw this bird at Persimmon Point, just above the La Chua trail at Paynes Prairie State Reserve, a few weeks ago. Persimmon Point and La Chua are only a football field apart as the crow (or sparrow) flies, but the Grasshopper Sparrows are picky: they like the open grasslands at the former site, but not at the latter.

Sparrows used to be among the birds I gave myself the right to ignore because they were just too confusing. I'm still confused, but helped a bit by my realization that sparrows are just as varied and finicky about their surroundings as people. Swamp Sparrows, for instance, show up precisely where Grasshopper Sparrows don't: near the water's edge at La Chua. They look a little like Savannah and Song Sparrows. But they're not:

(Spring break has just begun, and I desperately need a break from the epic explain-a-thon that is my teaching life.)

And maybe this is where the "little brown job" thing came from: Some clever birder back in prehistory, tired of trying to explain the differences between sparrows to distracted reporters who just wanted sound bites, gave in and came up with a sound bite. And to his embarrassment, the sound bite stuck.

But it was better than rambling pointlessly on about the differences between Song and Savannah Sparrows, and looking like a total dork in print.


Susan said...

Well, I for one love this post! and there is a great thrill to finally identifying, beyond a doubt, an non birders I know have been heard to call fast flying, blurry little balls of feather that flit quickly out of view...that's a little brown jobby...and the more we look, the more we see, and the more we can comfortably call out, Song Sparrow!

Felicia said...

Hi Susan—you're right; knowing birds is a bit like knowing wine or classical music or baseball—it takes LOTS of exposure and practice. And this, of course, always gives me another excuse to go out!

Floridacracker said...

Really nice crisp shots Felicia!

Felicia said...

Hi FC—Thanks for your kind words; these are my husband's shots, not mine—there's no way mine would turn out anywhere near as clear as these!

Andree said...

Thank you. I'm going to call the photos I have a song sparrow. I'm not a birder, just a photographer that tries to ID photos of birds. Some months I vow to just call them sparrows and some months I get an ID. Your post was a motivator.