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THROUGH THE WOODS: LBJs of the bird world

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House Sparrow male

IN THE PAST FEW WEEKS, we have had an influx of birds coming up from the south with new ones arriving daily. One of the most difficult groups of species for birders to separate and identify are the sparrows, those “little brown jobs” or LBJs, and to make matters worse, there are females of other species of birds that look like sparrows! They all seem to look alike and only vary in length from about 5 1/2 inches to 7 inches. It is very challenging, but there are observation strategies that help. First study a good field guide like a Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (The Peterson Field Guide) by Roger Tory Peterson, or the Sibley Guide to Birds by David A. Sibley. Online try the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site “All About Birds.” Pick a type of sparrow that is fairly common and that you feel you can reliably identify, like the male (the female is fairly drab) house sparrow with a length of 6 inches. There is nothing else like it in our area and it is found on farms as well as in urban settings. It often stays through the winter so you can study it before other sparrows return in the spring.

A reliable location has been outside the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store in Harlemville. They look for seeds, handouts and dropped crumbs. The store has lots of good items for lunch and you can sit outside and watch the birds while you eat.

When you have your reference sparrow, the house sparrow, memorized for size, shape, color pattern, tail characteristics (is it notched, square-tipped or rounded?), possibly its song, and general behavior go back to the references and look up the sparrows again. Note the largest (fox at 7 inches) and smallest (chipping at 5 ½ inches) sparrow found in our area and compare the three. I used to do paper life-sized cutouts of birds to get a feel for the size, shape, and posture of a bird. You can also get a plastic toy bird the right size and shape and hang it in a tree outside as a comparison bird in your yard. Some have used a light-colored ruler on a feeder pole as a size guide.

In the sparrow species pictures section, start at the head and note that our sparrows have dark-colored eyes. Heads have different shapes with some flat and some more crested or pointy on top. Is there a stripe above, below, or through the eye? What color is the stripe or stripes? Are there stripes of white on top of the head or white under the chin? Are there yellow or yellowish areas? The bill of a sparrow is sturdy for eating seeds, but it too can be different colors. The field sparrow has a pink bill. Different species may have yellow, black or bi-color bills. The breasts of sparrows can be plain, have a central dot, or have stripes of different widths and colors. Wings can be barred or plain or have patches of rust color or white. The tail can vary in length, have white outer feathers, and be notched or not. The fox sparrow has a particular behavior of noisily scratching back leaves while looking for food. The call of the white-throated sparrow is unmistakable, singing For Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!

Most birds have a particular habitat they prefer. Swamp sparrows can be found in swamps. However other sparrows may be in the area too. Song Sparrows are notoriously everywhere and this stripy sparrow is another good reference bird to learn. The sparrows are challenging so keep practicing and learn the identification points for each. Other brown birds to keep in mind that are not sparrows are female rose-breasted grosbeaks (much larger at 8 inches and have a thicker bill), female purple and house finches, and female indigo buntings (small and plain at 5 inches). And if you get thoroughly frustrated as one flits off into a leafy bush, remember every good birder has gone *@#! %*!!! and written on their list- LBJ!

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