Friday, December 5, 2008

Sparrows: The Little Brown Birds

I had a ‘snow day’ yesterday…as I started off to work the freezing fog was so dense I couldn’t see two blocks; I turned around before I ever got out of town and stayed home for the day. And I watched birdies. Yeah!

Mostly I didn’t see anything other than the ever-growing number of usuals; several Junco variants, Pine siskins, American goldfinch, House finch, chickadees, woodpeckers, Blue jays, magpies and of course Eurasian Collared-doves.

But I also saw what, last year I called a ‘chipmunk-colored bird…different from the rest’…but only for a moment. Having done my homework, I was convinced I’d seen a White-throated Sparrow. I noted that under the brown & tan stripped head was the long, white throat-patch…lined in dark on either side. I noted the very streaky flanks and finally the dark blotch high on its breast, from which the streaks seemed to emanate. I was quite sure I finally saw a fairly common bird for this area. But perhaps not. Ah the joys of sparrows; Little Brown Birds (LLBs).

White-throated sparrows’ stripped heads are black-stripped, not chipmunk-brown and their breasts are a clear, sooty-gray. Well, unless the bird is young.

Immature White-throated sparrows (like immature White-crowned sparrows) have brown, rather than black strips…and they are streaked with these marks coming together in a central

The problem is that several many times I have thought I might have a Savannah Sparrow in my yard, and upon consulting various books I’ve decided this bird was not one…but that is based on the fact that Savannah Sparrows’ breast is far more pale and unstreaked than the bird I saw. And the head-stripes were more evident than I can see in most Savannah sparrow photos. But then, I didn’t find many ‘immature’ photos.

So, could it have been a Song Sparrow? Yes; stripy head, streaky breast and the dark, central spot. The photo to the right is most like what I remember seeing. Especially with that lack of yellow near the lores.

Obviously I have more work to do. But, isn’t that the fun of it all?

Photos from Wikipedia


Bosque Bill said...

The local sparrow expert here in Albuquerque says coloration of a yet-to-be identified sparrow should be the last thing you examine, to paraphrase loosely. Because, as you so aptly point out, many different species look very similar with their colors and stripe patterns. (With a few obvious exceptions, naturally.)

Each different genus of sparrows typically has different shapes, feeding & behavior characteristics, and habitat. That is what one should check first.

One example, the Zonotrichia I find to be fat, energetic hoppers with long wings that extend past their bodies, and of course their crowns make their heads seem "taller" (White-crowned, White-throated, Golden-crowned, for instance.)

Careful reading of the guides and experience will tell you that some sparrows stay beneath the shrubs, while some perch on top. Some can only be found in open grasslands, others only in dense vegetation.

Once you narrow things down to a few possibilities, then the pattern of stripes, etc., become more diagnostic.

Easier said, than done!

Beverly said...

Well, as I said, I still have a lot of studying to do. I haven’t watched sparrows enough at all to know what they call their ‘jizz’. You mentioned Zonotrichia, and I have had both adult and immature White-crowned sparrows at my feeders, but I’m fairly sure now, this was likely one of the Melospiza family…probably a Song sparrow; but I am going solely by what it probably was not. LOL

Both birds seem to like shrubbery and ground-feeding, and while the sparrow-types I’ve seen were most certainly feeding on the ground, the shrubs are a ways from the feeders. What seems to be the case, so far, is that they are most likely uncomfortable out in the open…unless of course it is snowing and they are very hungry. Then they’ll come right up to the glass door and feed off the back stoop. The bird yesterday didn’t stay long.

I’ve never seen a White-crowned sparrow raise his crown really; in my experience the Cassin’s finches are more likely to do that. Still…I’ve not had enough experience to check wing length or compare body shapes. Of course I’ve learned juncos are fat, round little things and most sparrows tend to be longer and leaner…but as I said, I’m only just discovering sparrows. And warblers. And ducks. And gulls…and…

LOL I feel like once I narrow down possibilities of diagnostic patterns…then I’ll ‘only’ have immatures, first year and second year birds to figure out. Ha…this is going to keep me occupied for a long, long time!

Thanks for stopping by, Bill...I appreciate your encouragement!

NW Nature Nut said...

I absolutely *love* to see the White-crowned Sparrows (2) that have been visiting my garden. The two I get have very distinct markings like the photo on your blog. There is no mistaking the "white throat". They are unusal in our area, although I have heard about more sitings lately. Happy Birdwatching (and snow days!)

Bosque Bill said...

My White-crowns will feed in the open, though they really prefer to be close or under a shrub. You can tell their longer wings as the tips extend past their bodies. It almost looks like they are holding them out a slight amount (this wing thing is also how I can identify a Hermit thrush compared to similar looking species.)

I occasionally get Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina) and they will only stay in the open or even perch on fences or in trees.

Beverly said...

Yeah, there are several birds with white throats…some with belly-streaks, some without, with or without that dark spot at the center of the breast. All lovely…and all birds about which I still need to learn a lot!

Having said that…you all know I just started really looking at birds in February of this year. Last April I did a piece on the White-crowns I saw then. I was so surprised what an ‘immature bird’ could look like; different color and different markings! Check it out:

LBBs last April.

But, I’m learning! Perhaps these birds don’t really start showing up that much till later in the winter; I don’t even know that part, yet.

Thank you both for your comments!

Debbie said...

American tree sparrow??? Chipping sparrow?

miseryguts01 said...

Hi - did you ever identify the bird? I've had the exact same bird in my garden a couple of days ago, and my first thought was immature Savannah. My photograph of the bird looks like it could be taken directly from your page!
Tom Miller, Oakville, Ontario