Appreciating and Identifying Sparrows

Oct 31, 2018

On this All Hallows Eve, I'd like to address a particularly terrifying topic – something that strikes fear into the hearts of many, including, I suspect, some of you. It’s risky even talking about it, as the mere mention of it may produce a deafening roar of radio dials being clicked to other stations. I’m talking about sparrow identification. 

Ok, while I suppose sparrows can’t compete with creepy clowns and public speaking in the pantheon of universal fears, in my experience, they do elicit a crippling fear response among beginning birders, who give them the dismissive moniker “Little Brown Jobs”. They are indeed small, skulking, streaky brown and gray birds. Many seem to enjoy being furtive, showing themselves for just a second before disappearing into dense grass. Most species arrive just as our landscape turns from green to brown, seemingly conspiring with the birds to keep them hidden. 

Sparrows are up there with the small sandpipers and immature gulls among the birds that make new birders want to throw away their binoculars and take up stamp collecting. But in the same way that the art scholar can pick out subtleties in well-known paintings that the rest of us Philistines can’t discern, so sparrows reward the birder willing to put in the time to learn them, and there’s no better time than fall to take a self-directed course in sparrow appreciation. 

Over the last couple of weeks, sparrow migration has kicked into high gear, with large numbers dropping into weedy fields, woodland edges, and even backyards. Typically, uncommon species like White-crowned Sparrow have been seen in near-record numbers – places where you would expect to see one in a good day have been turning up 6 or 8. Adult of this beautiful sparrow are easy to identify with their striking black and white crown, but the more commonly seen young ones are trickier. Look for large, long-tailed sparrow sporting wide chestnut streaks on either side its head and chasing the other birds under your feeder. 

Lincoln’s Sparrows are also around in good numbers, which for them means you see one or two in a day of active birding in good sparrow habitat, like a weedy community garden. The problem with these guys is that, to the uninitiated, they look like your backyard Song Sparrows, which always vastly outnumber them. But the subtle beauty of the Lincoln's is worth looking for – they are a little daintier and pointier- headed, with crisper, finer streaking and more contrasting colors, like the faint buffy wash underlying the breast streaks. 

You may know the rusty-capped Chipping Sparrow, common nester and feeder-visitor in suburban neighborhoods around here, but they, too, have a less-common lookalike as they fade into their nonbreeding plumage in fall. Clay-colored Sparrows are uncommon visitors from the west, though strangely isolated breeding population of a few pairs has developed on Camp Edwards in recent years. They closely resemble Chipping Sparrows in winter plumage but look for their overall more buff and gray palette and browner, less red crown. But the clincher takes some practice and a close look – the Chipping Sparrow has a dark line between the eye and the bill, an area birders know as the “lores” while the Clay-colored is blank here, giving it a different expression.

See? That wasn’t so scary. Boring maybe, but not scary. If you’re still awake, I’ll leave you with my usual advice, which is to go out and look for these birds yourself – it's the only way to learn. Oh, and if you have any beginning birders you really want to scare tonight, I have a sparrow costume you could borrow.