Monday, February 12, 2007

What's that sound?

Listen! I believe I hear the short and sweet “help-me-help-me” cry of a beginning birder trying to ID sparrows!

I’ve always liked sparrows a lot, despite (or perhaps because?) my fourth grade grammar teacher Mrs. West said that sparrows were "the laziest birds," feeding opportunistically on whatever humans leave behind. I wanted to ask her why this meant the birds were “lazy”--it seemed to me that they were just taking advantage of messy humans and cleaning up after us. What’s lazy about that? Besides, sparrows are cute. I didn’t say anything aloud, however. I wasn’t much of a class talker when I was a kid, especially not in that class. She was a nice enough lady, and I really dug the way she always had a handbag and shoes to match every outfit. My favorite was this white cotton dress with pictures of little carrots on it, with matching orange pumps and orange handbag. Who has a dress with carrots on it, you know? But what kept me quiet was the fact that she was really tall and intimidating, and I was so small. She would constantly tease me about getting blown away by the wind on the playground (I was maybe three feet tall in fourth grade--maybe--I was little). This idea terrified me, so I wasn’t about to knock her theory on sparrows.

Anyway, I had a lot of sparrows at the feeders today, so I thought I’d do a little photographic study of them and try to learn more about their behavior and their markings. My sources, once I came back inside, were my Stokes’ field guide, my old Peterson’s field guide, Bill Thompson III’s Identify Yourself (Jimmy Carter did a blurb on the back? wow!), and Robert Burton and Stephen W. Kress’s The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens.

Okay--I’ll build my confidence with an easy ID: one of the more common sparrows in my backyard, the white-throated sparrow:

I tried to capture the markings on their crowns and napes, which are quite striking:

And is this the cutest little bird booty you’ve ever seen?

So--no challenge there; that white throat patch and the yellow eyebrows make this the easiest sparrow ID for me.

White-crowned sparrows are also easy, but I didn’t see any today. Suffice it to say, I’m good on this sparrow.

Song sparrows are fairly easy to identify with that “stick pin” spot and streaky breast and flanks. Bill of the Birds wrote that a few sparrows have that center “stick pin” spot, so watch out for that. Still, I’m confident that I can spot a song sparrow. Here’s a couple of shots of an individual on the feeder:

Here, you can see the streaked flanks and the long tail:

So far, so good.

Next comes the American tree sparrow. I thought I was pretty good with this one, but after staring at my photos and my many field guides and bird books, I started to get a little shaky! Always over-analyzing everything. Still, I feel fairly confident about these, with their rufous crowns, gray breasts, and light breast spots:

During my post-photo-shoot study, I learned that tree sparrows have what the Stokes call a “two-toned bill--upper bill dark, lower bill yellow.” Once I’d read that, I went back to the previous photos--I think I see the dark upper and yellow lower, but today’s shots were all taken with the Nikon CP4800 on full digital zoom, through the window glass on the back porch--zooming in on their beaks just gives me a pixelated mess. So I went back through my 168 photos again, and I found some other shots where I think you can see the bill fairly well:

Jackpot--check out that dark upper bill and light (if not really yellow in this overcast daylight) lower bill!

So--three sparrows that are regular visitors to my feeders, plus the white-crowned sparrow. Of course, these are winter markings; will things look different in the spring?

Probably the neatest thing sparrows do is the way they kind scrape both feet back to pull grass out of the way to find seeds. Smart birds. And those pink feet just kill me--so cute.

There were a few other birds out there today, so I’ll show you these photos as well.

Here’s the downy performing some acrobatics on the hanging feeder:

Also in that last shot is another streaky bird I see a lot of: the female house finch. It took me a while to tell her from sparrows because she’s got that little-brown-bird-with-streaks thing going. Her body shape is different, however, and her beak is obviously finch-like. When closed, her wing feathers are really pretty from the back:

That last one features a blurry phantasm of a sparrow on its way to the hanging feeder--ghost bird!

I didn’t know that sparrows liked suet, but they do:

But now that I think about it, sparrows will eat just about anything, I guess. That suet's probably better than the french fries, pizza crusts, and other human litter they clean up.

I keep saying I’ve got to snap off some of the twigs around the suet feeder; it's messing up my shots of the feeder. Here, I’ve got great focus on the twigs, with a rather blurry background of a red-bellied woodpecker:

and this shot of a bluejay would’ve been nice, if you could see his face:

Strangely absent today were my cardinal pairs, male house finches, goldfinches, and white-crowned sparrows. I saw a couple of juncos, so that was nice--but I didn’t get any photos. I picked dark-eyed juncos as one of my top 10 most beautiful birds; they’re just so cute!

I think my favorite photos are the ones where the bird just doesn’t cooperate; one second he’s there, the next second, I get a photo of

Nice twigs.


LauraHinNJ said...

I'm glad you're laughing while you're learning! Sparrows can be so frustrating!

For some reason I don't get tree sparrows at my feeders and only ever see white-crowned sparrows for a week or two while the dogwoods are blooming. The mysteries of migration, I guess.

dguzman said...

I get all kinds of sparrows at the feeder; I'm hoping to get some more exotic ones come spring. I know we get swamp and fox sparrows in this area, so I'd better sharpen my skillz and get ready for spring!

Susan Gets Native said...

I used to get all twitchy about sparrows, until I learned the ones at the feeders. Then you can really tell them apart. But show me a strange sparrow in the woods, and I need my field guide and then I am still unsure.
Give me raptors any day.
The teacher you spoke of must have been referring to house sparrows, the "parking lot" birds. They are opportunistic and crappy.
Yay for spring plantings for the birds. Go native, girl. Go native. The birds will be knocking your door down.
I have that same feeder! (mine is green) Everyone likes it.
I have never seen a sparrow clinging to a suet feeder! I have seen them clean up on the ground underneath, but on the feeder???

dguzman said...

Definitely, I'm going with all native plants; I just need to research and find the right ones. I've only lived in PA for a couple of years, and before that I lived in TX--quite a bit of difference in the native species!

Yeah, the sparrows seem to like the peanut butter suet cakes; so do all the other birds--even the jays.

Larry said...

Maybe your teacher was talking about House Sparrows when she said sparrows were lazy and House Sparrows aren't even really sparrows.I'm fairly new to birding.Sparrows can be tricky when your actually out in a field trying to i.d. them. Many Sparrows have subspecies and also look different when they are immature.-Nice to see a blog from a birder who is still new to it.That is a very exciting time because so much is new to you. Nice series of Sparrow photos/i.d.'s.-Larry

dguzman said...

I am having an absolute blast learning about birds and their habits, IDing them, etc. I haven't really gone out "in the field" officially; just walks around my house (out in the country). It's definitely much more challenging to see and ID birds on my walks as opposed to watching them at the feeder, when they tend to sit there while they eat.

I think she was talking about house sparrows; still, I always thought it was mean of her to judge them as lazy. They were just trying to eat, you know?