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Sparrow sighting

Sat., Aug. 11, 2007

Sparrows are not usually very exciting. They are to birding what calculus is to mathematics. If you are really into math, you’ll love the challenge and elegance of calculus as you work to understand it. But if you don’t like math, calculus will scare the hell out of you.

It’s the same with sparrows. They are terribly intimidating at first, but can become a fun and exhilarating challenge as you come to understand them.

We have a lot of diversity in summer sparrows in Kootenai County, with eight species that breed here. Many of these do not pose much of a challenge, however.

Spotted towhees and dark-eyed juncos are technically sparrows, but you’d never know it by looking at them, and by looking at them you’ll know exactly what they are.

There are Lincoln’s sparrows and fox sparrows at high elevations, but they won’t be seen lakeside until early fall when they begin migrating. Both are fairly inconspicuous in forested areas where you may also find highly conspicuous chipping sparrows.

There are always song sparrows about, in fields and in town, no matter the time of year, and they are at all times quite evident and an obvious identification by song or sight.

In open field and prairie-type areas you may find vesper or savannah sparrows, or both, nesting and singing their summer songs. These are members of the tough crowd of grassland sparrows. With this group, many casual birders say, “Yup, that’s a sparrow,” and leave it at that.

So, around here there’s not usually all that much challenge in summer sparrows to worry about. Fall and winter may make for more demanding sparrow identification with off-season plumage and unexpected migrants in the mix.

Southwest of here, though, not far from Colfax, at Steptoe Butte State Park in Whitman County, seven sparrow species were to be found in the grass and shrubs this past June. That’s the sort of area that can drive a sparrow beginner crazy, but can also be a great place to study the different species.

By doing your homework, and really knowing the birds in your area, even the difficult ones, you are then ready when an opportunity presents itself and you recognize a rare species. This was the case for Hayden birder Cindy Langlitz on June 14 when she was doing her usual dog-walk at the north end of Reed Road out by Coeur d’Alene Airport. She knew her savannah and vesper sparrows well enough to recognize an unexpected newcomer.

There, in the weeds, was Kootenai County’s first-ever sighting of a Brewer’s sparrow – and not just one sparrow, but at least six of them in a fairly small area along the dirt road. Had Langlitz not been looking at sparrows, and had she not identified them as a species out of place, we’d never have known, and many local birders would never have had the enjoyment of seeing Brewer’s sparrows here.

It’s not that Brewer’s sparrows are rare everywhere. In fact, in the sagebrush shrublands of the Great Basin they are by far the most abundant avian species. But that habitat association doesn’t describe anything we have in North Idaho.

Southern Idaho and Washington’s Columbia Basin have a lot of summer-resident Brewer’s sparrows, and there are a few rare local breeding pairs as near as the Moscow area. One locale there has three or four territorial males each summer.

This year, though, something strange is happening with Brewer’s. That Moscow spot has had 10 or 12 males. Spokane and Whitman Counties in Washington have had more than ever before. The Columbia Basin, and especially Douglas County, has unprecedented numbers. So say experienced birders from throughout the region.

So, what’s going on? This sudden Brewer’s population explosion throughout Washington and its invasion into North Idaho is especially surprising in the face of accumulating data that show an ongoing decrease in Brewer’s populations on its typical range.

Charles Swift, an active Moscow-area birder has wondered if drought in those habitat areas where Brewer’s are usually found has driven the species north this year.

Central Washington ornithologist Dan Stephens thinks their movements may be part of a long-term trend: “I suspect large scale habitat changes to the south have sent Brewer’s sparrow our way the last year or two, but have no data to prove such.”

Brewer’s sparrows are certainly a desert-oriented species. Along with the sagebrush that they usually nest in, they like a carpet of native bunchgrass and do not take well to the invading cheatgrass.

Also, when looking for ideal wintering conditions, they head south for the desert scrub of the Southwest United States and northern Mexico. In all areas, Brewer’s do not rely on drinking water. They have an efficient water-retaining system that allows them to go weeks without drinking. They rely on moisture from succulent insects in the summer, and can even extract water from dry seeds in their wintering areas.

In summer plumage, Brewer’s sparrows stand out in their plainness. Some of our most distinguished ornithologists from the past have described them thus: no obvious features, blank expression, undistinguished, nondescript, drab, subtle. Certainly not a bird you’d pursue for its beauty.

It’s two closest cousins, clay-colored and chipping sparrows, are gaudy by comparison – in the summer. In winter, Brewer’s is still plain, but no longer uniquely so. Clay-colored and chipping sparrows change to the point that identification in wintering areas where the three species overlap becomes the ultimate challenge.

Here we are able to not only recognize Brewer’s sparrows by their lack of distinguishing markings, but also by their beautiful singing. While many grassland sparrows, such as the clay-colored sparrow, have only insectlike buzzes for songs, Brewer’s sing with an ascending and descending series of buzzes and trills, or “buzzy trills.” I read one description of their singing that referred to it as a clay-colored sparrow trying to sing like a canary.

In summer, males defend their breeding territories by singing from a conspicuous perch – which can be difficult to find in their preferred desert habitat. In winter, males get together as if in a chorus to sing their songs in a beautifully coordinated-sounding unison.

As I have often reminded anthropomorphizing birders in the field; no, birds are not singing out of joy over a beautiful day. Being gregarious in winter, the males’ singing probably helps hold the flock together while feeding. Sorry to spoil the scene, but that’s the way it is.

With these possessive bird names, I always wonder about the soul for which the bird was named. In the case of Brewer’s sparrows, noted ornithologist John Cassin – who has an auklet, a kingbird, a vireo, a sparrow and a finch of his own – identified a unique group of sparrows out of a collection of clay-colored sparrow specimens and named them for a colleague, Thomas Mayo Brewer, in 1856.

Brewer was noted for his work on bird eggs, but was not universally liked among the ornithologists of his day. I’m not sure if that is why the most unremarkable bird of North America was named for him, but his associates often described Brewer in unflattering terms.

Thus, our poor ugly duckling of a sparrow has had insult added to injury when its name became synonymous with “cantankerous old ass.”


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