Sparrow goodness

The Rodney Dangerfield of the North American bird world: the house sparrow (Passer domesticus).  They get no respect.  And in kind, most sparrows get the same treatment because, by proxy, they’re no more interesting than their introduced cousins.

What I’ve learned over the years is that ubiquitous house sparrows blind a lot of people to other species.  Essentially, if a sparrow doesn’t have some blatant distinguishing characteristic like two heads or diamond-studded feathers, it winds up lumped into the “just a sparrow” pile of birds.  That’s unfortunate given the diversity of our sparrow populations where both large and small differences separate the species.

A female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in a bush (2009_02_18_010114)

The obvious: a female house sparrow.  She stood patiently by my patio fence and watched me as I snapped her photo.  One thing about house sparrows: they don’t worry so much about me, and that gives me good opportunities for taking pictures.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in a bush (2009_02_18_010125)

Beside her stood a male house sparrow.  I suspect these two are an item since they never moved far from each other.  Like his lady friend, he perched calmly and kept an eye on me, yet he didn’t panic and didn’t flee.

A lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) running through the grass (2009_05_22_020747)

A lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus).  Not as easy to find as I would like, at least not here in the middle of the city.  Drive a wee bit out of Dallas and they become abundant.  This one took me by surprise at White Rock Lake.  As I stood photographing a group of sparrows, this bird came running around from behind me and tackled something in the grass.  I barely had time to turn and snap a picture before it carried its treat into the air.

A field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) perched in a tree (2009_10_31_035854)

A field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).  More specifically, a gray variation.  Bad light notwithstanding, I was at first confused by this bird because it looked like a field sparrow yet lacked any noticeable facial patterns.  Only when I processed the image later and compensated for the backlighting did its true nature become obvious.  (I’ll note I had a few other photos that showed wing patterns and the like, but overall this was just a bad photographic encounter.)

A vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) standing in shadowy grass (2009_10_31_035943)

A vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus).  Even the dark shadows of a large tree and early morning couldn’t hide that bold eyering.  Vesper sparrows are large birds by sparrow standards.  Size makes them noticeable when foraging with a group of birds, and the heavy white eyeliner stands out in good and bad light.

A chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) standing in brightly lit grass (2009_11_01_036863)

Chipping sparrows (Spizella passerina), on the other hand, are typical of small sparrows.  A group of them shared dew-covered grass with several other sparrow species in addition to dark-eyed juncos and meadowlarks.  While the vesper sparrows always looked obvious, the chipping sparrows would vanish beneath the grass as though they’d fallen in a hole.  Then suddenly a head would pop up and look around, then the bird would go back to foraging.

A Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) perched in a tree (2009_11_01_036354)

A Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis).  Of all the sparrow species, Savannah sparrows seem the most variable.  Most of the variation, however, tends toward subtle color and pattern differences.  Joyous little Savannah sparrows aren’t at all worried about people.  If they’re disturbed or interrupted, they perch in the open with a sort of blatant “You see me standin’ here!” attitude; also, they aren’t secretive and often move about as though they hadn’t a care in the world.

A white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) perched in brush (2009_11_01_036451)

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is another large species (well, large by sparrow standards I mean).  I don’t know if it was playing stoic and hoping I didn’t see it or if it was unbothered by my presence, but this adult stood its ground in some shoreline brush only a few steps away from me.  OK, I stood there for a while waiting for it to come to me, but I was surprised when it didn’t flinch as I turned to aim the camera.  Maybe I’d stood still so long that it figured I was stuck to the ground and therefore posed no threat.

Sometimes finding sparrows is easy.  Open, grassy or brushy areas near cover often give me Savannah, song, field, chipping and vesper sparrows.  Clay-colored, white-throated, Lincoln’s and white-crowned sparrows tend toward brushy areas and woodland edges, including the reed beds along the lake shore.  Lark sparrows spend time in meadows, grasslands and open woods, but they dislike coming into the city and make me work to find them (or, as in this case, they surprise me with a brief visit to remind me that they’re waiting just outside the city gates).

On the other hand, sometimes finding sparrows is difficult.  Even in areas where I would expect to see one or more species, I have walked away with nothing but house sparrows to show for the effort.  Time of day seems important: Early morning, especially with heavy dew, makes a perfect time to find them en masse.  Away from people works for some species and not others (Savannah sparrows are a good example with their devil-may-care attitude and in-your-face antics).

Overall, I’d say the trick rests entirely on not ignoring a sparrow.  Any sparrow, I mean.  What looks mundane could well be a sparkling gem hiding right in front of your eyes.

11 thoughts on “Sparrow goodness”

  1. Good lesson, and as usual, fabulous photos, Jason! I’m guilty of calling a sparrow a sparrow – correctly identifying them can be a real challenge and one I’m not always ready to complete! I heard my first of the season white-throated sparrow today and can’t wait to see one again. Juncos will arrive soon.

    1. Thanks, Mary! And I’m right there with you: There have been times when I’ve been disgusted with myself for not being able to ID a sparrow. Like shorebirds, sparrows can be a heck of a challenge.

  2. Excellent post. Sparrows are too often ignored.

    I wish I had more sparrow species here, I seem to be specializing in photographing them in flight.

    Here’s an image showing just how brilliant they can be:

    1. Thanks, Rick! I’ll admit the number of sparrow species here jumps significantly in winter. We still have a good selection during the rest of the year, but from now through next spring is a veritable banquet of visitors.

      And you’re much better at the in-flight photos than I am. If I get one, it’s usually by luck or accident–mostly accident, I suspect.

  3. Another set of wonderfully characterful photographs. I particularly like the female house sparrow looking as though she’s trying to master walking on stilts. (But I must curb my tendency to anthropomorphism!)

    Here in the UK there’s been a massive and worrying decline in the once commonplace house sparrow. Decimating viruses and plentiful predators in city gardens have been variously blamed, but the jury seems to be out on any one specific cause. (Probably because there isn’t one, Just the steady drip of mounting odds against!) Luckily we have a thriving population in our garden here in the Ystwyth Valley, supported by my keeping the bird feeders appropriately stocked throughout the seasons.

    Good to see Rick Lieder here at Xenogere. Another genius of bird and insect photography. Do visit his marvellous site. Hi Rick! Please give my love to Kathe.

    1. I’m glad you like them, Clive! I was especially fond of the female house sparrow. She perched like that for several minutes and watched me as I snapped her photo. Then we just stood and looked at each other for a while. She was a joy!

      I read there was a 50% drop in house sparrow numbers in the UK–and it happened in just 10 years. Very troubling. I don’t think I’ve seen any news on what might be causing the losses.

      I’m very much with you on Rick’s work. I’m a big fan–and I envy his photographic gift!

    1. Hi, Ridger! Thanks for visiting. White-throated sparrows showed up a week or so after most of our other sparrow species–but boy did they show up in force. They are indeed cool little birds!

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