Friday, June 10, 2005

Little Brown Birds

Sure, warblers are fun--the songs are hard to learn, there are lots of them, they're hard to see, and when you do get to see them, their plumage is often fantastic, and there's a whole page in the Peterson's guide called "Confusing Fall Warblers" to help distinguish them as they lose their very distinctive breeding plumage. But there is another group of birds that presents, in their own way, an even greater challenge to the birder climbing this steep learning curve--the little brown birds. These are, for the most part, the sparrows.

In Thomasburg we have the yard sparrows, the chipping sparrow, the song sparrow, and that pretender the English house sparrow (a finch, introduced to North America by some nut in the 19th century). These sparrows I know very well, and they look different from each other, and have very different songs and habits. The other small finches that hang around here, the goldfinch, the purple finch and the house finch, are also very familiar and fairly easily distinguished at a glance.

But just a few feet away, in the fields and the scrape, are the hard cases. The chipping sparrow and the song sparrow live out there too, and they're joined by the field sparrow, the savannah sparrow, the grasshopper sparrow, and the vesper sparrow, and a few rarities are also outside possibilities. All of these birds are about the same size: little; all of these birds are brown. And all of them are quick.

The field sparrow has a very distinctive song, and a very plain look. The chipping sparrow has a song that is something like the pine warbler and maybe one or two others, but it has a pretty distinctive look (once the tree sparrow has gone north--fortunately the tree sparrow has a mark on its breast that the chipping does not, is quite a bit bigger and usually leaves at around the time the chipping sparrow arrives in the spring). The grasshopper sparrow also has a relatively distinctive song, but it's hard to get a look at it and, in my experience (rather limited, but I have had a grasshopper sparrow around), it doesn't sing a whole lot the way the field sparrow, for example, does.

But then there's the devilish trio, the song sparrow, the savannah sparrow and the vesper sparrow. I tried to find web pages that had clear pictures of good exemplars of each of these birds, but these were the best I could come up with. The savannah sparrow picture is from BC, but it matches my field guide's description of this bird for Ontario, so gives an idea of what I'm up against. The real problem stems from the enormous variation in both the appearance and the song of the song sparrow. If it has a bit of yellow on its head and looks like these birds, then it's a savannah sparrow (unless it's a grasshopper sparrow of course)--but the breast markings, cheek markings, eye rings, sometimes obvious, sometimes almost non-existent. And while you may get to know the song of the song sparrow who nests in the juniper in your backyard--don't count on it being anything like the song of the song sparrow one field over--except maybe in some vague family-resemblance kind of way.

But this might help: the song sparrow has a rounded end to its tail while the other two have notched tails. So if you can just get them to pose in the right position. Also the savannah's pale areas underneath tend to be white, while the vesper's tends to be more to the beige, so if you can just get the light just right. Or look for that little bit of yellow.....

Here's where walking that same walk every day pays off. Over at the edge of the far field, just by my warbler listening post, there is a pair of sparrows nesting. I've been aware of them for a couple of weeks, and decided early on that they were probably vespers and probably nesting, but as the days passed I got to know them very well--sometimes I just said hello, and let them get on with whatever they were doing, others I took a little time to study them. This morning I spent a half an hour watching--and now I know for sure--they are vespers, and they've got chicks in the nest now, they were working furiously, catching caterpillars and carrying them back into the brush. I also know now that the vesper has two calls, a "chip" and a throatier "chirp" call that are used together, i.e. in sentences by a single bird, or called back and forth by the pair. Since I'm always there when I hear the calls what I suspect but don't know is that one of these is an alarm call to signal my presence.

So maybe now I know a vesper when I see or hear one.....but work on the little brown birds never ends. There are a large number of slightly larger brown birds that are the females of very colourful partners, the indigo bunting for example....and the list goes on.

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