Inspired by poet Merrill Gilfillan
In the birding world, there are a variety of groups of birds that present classic identification challenges. There are the gulls and terns, the flycatchers and the sparrows, to name some of the more notorious. Sparrows are not just challenging but are often viewed as worth so little attention that they become LBJ’s, Little Brown Jobs.
Sparrows can be hard to find, difficult to identify and often lack the splashy colors of other groups of birds, like the warblers. However sparrows have some defining characteristics that make their study full of not only challenges but the commensurate rewards as well. First, to be clear, what are we talking about when we say sparrows?
The sparrows I’m referencing are from the Order Passeriformes, the songbirds. Within this large group there are the 64 North American members of the family Emberizidae, that include new world sparrows, juncos, towhees, buntings and longspurs.
Sparrows offer a subtle beauty that, like many of life’s pleasures, are an acquired taste. From a palette of gray, brown, red and an occasional splash of yellow comes an infinite number of hues. These endless fine distinctions remind me of the Gambel Oaks in the Colorado Foothills. No match for the glory of a Vermont fall, each autumn they nonetheless offer an inspiring study in how endless variation can also reach the sublime.
Sparrows are also egalitarian. One need not be able to afford a tropical vacation to pursue them. They exist in vacant lots, backwoods and city parks as well as in wilderness haunts far from the trappings of human beings. Many have the pluck to stick it out through tough northern winters, making their pursuit possible year round.
Many sparrows offer a surprise bonus: they are supreme songsters. The haunting song of the White-crowned Sparrow at 12,000 feet, treeline, in the Rocky Mountains, the diverse repertoire of Song Sparrows as males square off in singing duels in neighborhood wetlands, the vocal gymnastics performed by Lark Sparrows, sounding like the special effects soundtrack from Star Wars out on the short grass prairie and the tireless song of a Vesper Sparrow singing from a fence in the back pasture.
Finally, sparrows are the true underdog. Jesus himself is quoted as noting, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? He then gives them a little shout-out by adding, Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. Who knew I would have Jesus backing me up in my pursuit of sparrows?
Besides divine guidance, I think there is a natural human inclination to root for the underdog. It is the great American story really; the scruffy kid from nowhere who makes it with nothing more than his own gumption. Sparrows certainly don’t have much of a current fan base, but the more I learn, the more I pursue them, the more I have come to appreciate them.
So here’s to the sparrow, the mysterious in the common place; the blue collar bird worthy of a second look. To help launch anyone, who’ll take me up on this quixotic quest, I am including some portraits of a few of my favorites.
hHarris’s Sparrow. These sparrows nest in some of the harshest terrain on the edge of the Canadian Tundra. Occasionally a few winter in Colorado but typically they prefer the midwest. Photo: Gloria Nikolai