by Mike Stiles
I like sparrows—a lot—but it wasn't always so. Like many beginning birders, I found them difficult and dull, shrugging them off as just another LBJ (Little Brown Job). I clearly remember the day, though, that all turned around, when I "worked" on a very cooperative sparrow that I had never seen before. It afforded me long looks, and turned out to be a Clay-colored Sparrow, a rare bird in this county, and a very handsome sparrow I might add. Now I enjoy their subtle beauty, and look forward to a good sparrow challenge in the field.
The group of birds we know as sparrows is widely diverse, currently with 33 species recognized in North America. They live in salt marshes and pine forests, grasslands and deserts; virtually every ecosystem on the continent. There are species that are melodious singers, while other's songs can be mistaken for the trill of an insect. As a group they feed on seeds, especially in the winter, and their bill is perfectly adapted to crack open their favorite food.
Some sparrows are incredibly diverse even within a species. The range map of the Song Sparrow, for example, is a swatch of color from ocean to ocean, but east coast birders visiting Morro Bay might have trouble recognizing our local birds as Song Sparrows. There is such a disparity in plumage, size, and even song between the two coasts that some authorities recognize 29 subspecies—but admit that it's probably a clinal variation and there is no evidence to split them into different species.
Other sparrows are different stories though. There is talk of splitting the Fox Sparrow, a relatively large sparrow that can remind one of a Hermit Thrush, into four different species, each of those with their attending subspecies. The locally common Savannah Sparrow group harbors a large-billed form that will likely be split from the others. Of course, birders await those splits as another tick on their lists.
As you read this, my backyard is full of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows. I eagerly await their return from their Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds every mid to late September, and keep track of the date I first see them. They too are a diverse group with several recognizable subspecies, including a non-migratory one that spends its life in a narrow strip of land in the California coastal fog belt, south to Santa Barbara County. The sexes are similar in the sparrows, so those White-crowned Sparrows without a white crown are immature, and not female birds, a rather common misconception.
Some sparrows can be quite difficult to separate. Three sparrows that occur locally but uncommonly, the Clay-colored, Chipping, and Brewer's Sparrows are notorious identification challenges, even for serious birders, especially in non-adult plumage. You can see what I mean in the photo of the three birds.
Habitat loss has caused the decline of some species of sparrows, and has even forced one into extinction. The Dusky Seaside Sparrow lived in the marshes of southern Florida, and was found to never range more than a few miles from its place of birth. DDT spraying and flooding of the bird's home range, both for mosquito control, and then the draining of the marsh for highway construction was, not surprisingly, too much for the bird to handle. In 1979 only seven of the sparrows remained, all of them males. The last one died in a nature preserve in 1987 and was thought to be 13 years old, an extreme old age for a sparrow.
So shed your sparrow inhibitions and start looking at every one you see. At least the ones on your feeder are easy to study. For the definitive treatise on the subject check out Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide by David Beadle & James Rising, and soon you too will be trying to decide if the White-crowned Sparrow in your backyard has a yellowish or an orangeish bill.
Sparrow Photos by Alan Schmierer