To refresh your memory, here is the photo from February’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Louisiana during the month of January. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
Either last month’s quiz was easy or you are all perceptive birders (I prefer the latter explanation). In either case, I thought I’d throw something a bit harder at you for February. Yes, it’s a Little Brown Job (LBJ). I’m terrible at LBJs!
Most people would assume this bird is a sparrow. Birders know, however, that not all sparrow-like birds actually are sparrows, so our first order of business is to determine if this individual is a sparrow or an imposter. What do we see?
- Small (compare to the gravel, grass, and leafy litter in the photo)
- Brown and striped
- Triangular seed-eating beak
- Seen in January (this eliminates most juveniles, which are often browner and more striped than adults)
What else has these attributes? Actually, a lot of birds have brown stripes, especially females. This coloration makes them harder to see when they’re sitting on a nest, protecting them from predators.
Pipits seem somewhat similar, but their beaks are much narrower and pointed. Yellow-rumped Warblers can sometimes seem pretty brown and striped, but have prominent wing bars, yellow on their sides, and black on their faces. Palm Warblers also can give an impression of brown stripes but again, the beak is all wrong and they have black legs.
Grosbeak females are substantially larger, have a prominent white eyebrow, and are far south in winter. The same could be said about a Dickcissel—they are summer birds in Louisiana. They also have gray beaks. Red-winged Blackbird females are substantially larger with pointed beaks.
Female finches, probably the most confusing sparrow look-alikes with their wedge-shaped beaks and stripes, are more gray than brown. Their backs lack the contrast seen on sparrows. In this case, their dark legs make them easy to eliminate. And that pretty much sums up the options. We’re back looking at sparrows.
Sparrows fall into several genera, and some experts insist that the key to identification is figuring out which genus to put a bird in. That sounded good to me until I actually tried it. I’m clearly not an expert. My method is probably less than optimal, but at least I can identify most of the sparrows I see—eventually.
First I try to see the front of the bird. Does it have a plain breast, or are there stripes? How about a central spot? The picture I gave you doesn’t answer these questions (I told you it was hard), but we can see stripes on the flanks and possibly at the top sides of the chest.
Next I look at beak and leg color. Our bird has a peachy beak (perhaps a bit darker on top?) and peachy pink legs. That’s a big help.
Finally, I try to check out wing bars, the presence or absence of an eye ring (our bird has a narrow one), shape of the head, pattern on the head, and other more subtle clues. Our bird has a less-than-impressive wing bar, and a flattened head. The head/face has typical sparrow markings, but nothing stands out.
Now I look at the options in my field guide. What matches?
Sparrows in the genus Ammodramus (Grasshopper, LeConte’s and Henslow’s Sparrows) have the right shape, and I take a closer look. The latter two are described as very secretive. The sparrow I photographed was standing on the edge of a sidewalk with no cover. In addition, although you couldn’t have known this, it was part of a flock, and they were all out in the open. I keep a finger in the page for the Grasshopper Sparrow and keep looking.
I come to the Savannah Sparrow. Thin eye ring. Pinkish legs and bill. Wing bar is the right size. The book points out that they usually have a yellowish supraloral (between the eye and the bill). Our bird does too. I also look for (according to Sibley’s) a “complete, storng eye-line and ‘mustache’ stripe”—check! Striped sides, a streaky (rather than scaley) pattern on the back—it’s looking good.
At this point, we’re stuck with “It’s probably a Savannah Sparrow.” Sometimes that’s the best we can do.
I, however, have more photos. Sneaky of me.
Now what do you think? Grasshopper Sparrows have a plain breast. Savannah Sparrows have a “necklace” of vertical stripes ending in a spot, with white from there on down. Sibley states that they also have a “whitish median crown-stripe.”
I could still be wrong—as I said, I’m not that great at LBJs—but my best guest is that we’re looking at a Savannah Sparrow.