What’s brown and brown and brown all over? What skulks like a cat, camouflages like a chameleon, thrives in all climates, all weathers, and is mostly overlooked? What’s our best metaphor for insignificance?
It lives in our gravel pits, our power-line cuts, our bus terminals, our coal mines. Its song is a jingling trill, a gasp, a gurgle, a wheeze, a buzz. It eats spiders in the Atlantic salt-marshes, cinquefoil buds on the Alaskan tundra, and seeds from the Mojave prickly pear.
What beast is more unassuming, more adaptable, more democratic than the sparrow? This family of birds, known as the Emberizidae, is native to all fifty American states, plus thirteen Canadian provinces and territories, yet has never had a representative elected to the office of State Bird or Provincial Emblem. Why the outrageous neglect?
White-throated Sparrow [one of our most common sparrows]
What the sparrow has going for it is exactly what people have against it. Scratching in the leaf litter or peeking out of dense grasses, sparrows are shy and blend in beautifully with their surroundings. Most are some shade of brown, with streaky camouflage on the back or breast, and their love of brambly shadows doesn’t make identification any easier. Backyard birders often dismiss them out of hand as “LBJs,” or “Little Brown Jobs.” Where does one begin?
Black-throated Sparrow [one of our most deserty sparrows]
Try right outside your front door. Sparrows’ great redeeming virtue is their ubiquity, if not their visibility. In the fall, they are migrating past us by the thousands. Chances are, wherever you live, in late October you may well have five to seven different species of sparrow hanging out within a five-minute walk of your back porch. If you can find a neglected patch of public park, or a brushy hedgerow beside an open field, you’re in sparrow country.
The first sparrow you are likely to see, if you live in a town, city, village, suburb, or metropolis, is probably the famous (and infamous) House Sparrow. Prepare yourself for this shocking news, but the House Sparrow is not really…a sparrow. At least not of our North American Emberizidae. It’s actually more closely related to our finch species. It was introduced from Europe into New York’s Central Park in 1864, and since then has spread like wildfire around the continent, taking up residence in chimneys, gutters, window-sills, and attics, just to name a few. The male House Sparrow has a distinctive black throat and bib; the female is a much plainer brown. Once you feel comfortable identifying this species, walk on.
Dickcissel [sparrow-like, but, like the House Sparrow, a "false" sparrow]
Here’s how to go sparrow-spotting. Grab a pair of binoculars and take them to the brushiest, scrubbiest, raggediest patch of vegetation in your neighborhood. Sparrows are usually found at a very human height from the ground, usually six feet or less. Watch for movement. And listen: as sparrows forage for food, they often make a sound like someone trying and failing to strike a match, over and over. You can even train your ear to tell the difference between one type of match and another.
When you see a sparrow, what should you look for? Many sparrows have distinctive patterns around the head, for instance. Does the bird have a rusty-red cap? Any white at the throat? Does it have white or brown streaks above the eyes like an old-fashioned football helmet?
Clarence "Ace" Parker c. 1938 [one of our most Song-Sparrow-like quarterbacks]
Next, see if you can get a look at the pattern on the breast of the bird. Is it streaky or clean? Is there a central “tie-pin” where the streaks converge in the center of the breast? Are the streaks thick and blurry, or thin and fine? Take notes about these characteristics to help you remember what you’ve seen. Back at home, dust off any old field guide to the birds, and see if you can narrow down your humdrum sparrow to a particular species. Once you’ve given it a name, and learned a little bit about how it lives, no sparrow seems quite so humdrum.
Grasshopper Sparrow [one of our most diminuitive sparrows]
Hamlet, coming to the end of his own play, paraphrases the New Testament by saying, “There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”—meaning, I guess, that there’s significance in the lives of the least of the least of earthly Creation. Surely that’s true. But who picked out the sparrow to be least of the least of creatures? Can’t we leave that unfortunate title to, oh, I don’t know, woolly aphids? (Next week: woolly aphids.)
Chestnut-collared Longspur [one of our most colorful sparrows]
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.