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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Alan Liere: Differentiating between varieties of little brown birds

I recently visited a friend and his wife who live just down the road from me here on Wildrose Prairie. When I pulled into their snow-covered driveway, I noticed the tracks of pheasants and turkeys in the snow, and before I got to their front door, I had flushed a big covey of quail.

There were a lot of other birds, too – flitting between assorted feeders, pecking away at small seeds strewn across a crust of snow. They seemed very happy.

“We’ve been feeding them for quite some time now,” my friend’s wife told me. “They say you’re not supposed to, but look at the snow! How else will the poor things survive?”

As a guest, I didn’t think it appropriate I share with them the bird feeding negatives I had heard of – about the spread of disease, or that how feeding made birds more vulnerable to predators, or that making them reliant on artificial food sources would cause them to perish while waiting for a handout if the feeding was discontinued.

In my friends’ minds they were helping the birds survive a brutal winter and they derived a great deal of pleasure from watching them. Besides, I wasn’t so sure the negatives outweighed the good in the first place.

I had a delightful afternoon visiting with my friend and his wife and watching the birds in their yard.

“We have juncos,” she told me. “Mostly Oregon juncos. Do you have juncos?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Is it contagious?

“It’s a bird,” she said with good-natured exasperation. “Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of juncos. And what about chickadees?” she continued. “We’ve seen several varieties – mostly black-capped and mountain, though I’m pretty sure there was a Carolina chickadee here earlier in the winter. That would really be unusual.”

“Indeed,” I replied.

“We made a list of the birds we’ve seen at the feeders,” my friend said. “There has been over 50 species.”

“Okay,” I finally admitted. “I can name every North America game bird from woodcock to sharptail grouse – probably have a mounted one somewhere in my house. I can differentiate between a crow and a raven and a bald eagle and a golden eagle. I can even identify a lot of hawks, but I don’t know other birds at all except for robins and English sparrows and magpies. If I they’re not one of those, they’re either a “tweetie bird,” a “little brown bird” or an “ahcrap bird.”

“Ahcrap bird?” the lady questioned. “I’m not familiar with that one.”

“An ahcrap bird,” I said, “is a bird you see in a roadside ditch or out in the sagebrush or under a tree when you’re hunting and you think it’s a quail or a grouse or a grey partridge, and then you get closer and realize it isn’t and you say ‘Ah, crap!’ They’re the same as tweeties and little brown birds.”

My friend smiled. “You need a bird book,” he said.

“I believe you’re right,” I admitted.

Just then a shadow swiftly crossed the window. I jumped slightly, spilling my coffee as I leaned back in my chair to peer excitedly after it. I thought it was a ruffed grouse but it wasn’t. “Ah, crap!” I said, reaching for a napkin.

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