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An ode to a sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow
Mark Faherty
Lincoln’s Sparrow

Yesterday was a typical Tuesday. I was working at my desk at Wellfleet Bay sanctuary, while trickling through the back of my mind was that little stream of anxiety about what this week’s bird report should be about. I have two windows at my desk, each looking out at some combination of dry grassland, woods, and the marsh beyond. Out one I noticed a little sparrow feeding among the fallen pine needles. It was about 99.9% likely to be a Song Sparrow, but I wondered if it might be the supremely uncooperative and rare Lincoln’s Sparrow wintering on the property – I’d only seen it once. Sure enough, like a little brown and gray muse, it was the unlikely Lincoln’s Sparrow that had hopped up to my window and saved the day.

A Lincoln’s Sparrow is what I always call a “birder’s bird.” I showed a photo I took to a coworker and she said “oh it looks like a sparrow!” While I think it’s an attractive bird with an interesting life history, half the joy of seeing one is the fact that you were able to identify it at all. There’s satisfaction that comes with drawing from your bag of accumulated knowledge and carefully honed ID skills to figure out a difficult bird. And they are a difficult bird. There’s a fine line between a crisp, newly molted Song Sparrow and a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and many have been misidentified or overlooked, even by birders.

The Lincoln’s is like a slimmer, better-dressed Song Sparrow – crisper lines, more colors than you’d expect for a “little brown job,” as some might call it. Buffy breast and cheek, rusty cap and wings, gray face. The black breast streaks look like they were applied with a freshly sharpened pencil, unlike the reddish and blurry crayon streaks of a Song Sparrow. They often raise the head feathers to a steep peak when assessing a situation, like a sparrow’s version of raised eyebrows.

Lincoln’s Sparrows breed sparsely across Canada, mainly in subarctic bogs, and most winter in Texas and Mexico. We see them mainly in fall migration, when they’re an uncommon sight among other sparrows in weedy fields and thickets. In winter they are genuinely rare north of Texas, this one I got to study so closely today seems to be the only one in our area this winter.

Sparrows are like the winter landscape around here, to appreciate them, you have to dig browns and grays. While some lucky duck might end up with a flashy male Painted Bunting at their feeder, most of us make do with subtler hues, punctuated, of course, with the occasional lurid red of a cardinal. But do yourself a favor, don’t pine for the times when goldfinches are yellow and colorful warblers return. Instead, embrace the aesthetic of the season and spend some time with a sparrow, whatever you may have around – probably a Song Sparrow, maybe a White-throated Sparrow. Note the pattern - which parts are brown, which are gray? Is the breast streaked? How about the face pattern? What does it do and say?

You may find you’re an afficionado, a sparrow snob even, sniffing at those Philistines who dismiss them as “little brown jobs.” “That,” you might find yourself saying some day, “is a Lincoln’s Sparrow.”

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.