I wonder what sparrows did so wrong that God made them all brown. While other birds are blessed with vibrant hues, sparrows are the color of drab.
Sorting out the identities of species that are all colored alike can be a challenge, but at least with warblers and all their yellowishness, it’s a more exciting shade of confusion. Sparrows offer nothing but a shameless sameness.
There are more than two dozen sparrow species in North America and sixteen of those are found in Maine.
Sparrows are brownish, grayish, blandish. A fleeting glimpse is unhelpful. Longtime birders chuckle about this and refer to the entire group as LBJs — Little Brown Jobs. Sometimes, that’s the best ID you can offer.
Happily, identifying sparrows is much easier than it looks. For one thing, most of the sparrows you see in your neighborhood are song sparrows. Song sparrows are so widespread that they are the default sparrow. The first step in identifying a sparrow is to figure out if it is not a song sparrow. Get to know the song sparrow and everything about sparrow identification in Maine gets much easier.
For one thing, the song sparrow is a generalist. He can be found nearly everywhere. Most other sparrows are specialists. The savannah sparrow is abundant but confined to grassy fields in breeding season. It looks much like a song sparrow, but it’s a whiter shade of pale. The Lincoln’s sparrow looks very much like a song sparrow, but it is confined to bogs. Vesper sparrows are confined to blueberry barrens. Fox sparrows are confined to the spruce forests and mountaintops of northern Maine. The swamp sparrow is confined to swamps.
Pop quiz: If a swamp sparrow is found in swamps, where is a field sparrow found? Now you’re catching on. They are mostly found in open grassy areas of York County, though their range stretches up the coast to Mount Desert Island. The field sparrow is at the upper end of its range in Maine, barely reaching into the state.
The grasshopper sparrow is also at the extreme northeastern end of its range and only a few are found here. They are confined to Kennebunk Plains, weedy portions of the Brunswick Naval Air Station, and a scant few other spots in southern Maine. Recently, clay-colored sparrows have been found breeding in Maine, or at least trying to. One spent several weeks last May singing his little heart out next to Home Depot in Bangor, unsuccessfully trying to attract a mate.
Two breeding sparrows are confined to salt marshes. Formerly known as the sharp-tailed sparrow, the Nelson’s sparrow and the saltmarsh sparrow are so similar that they were considered to be one species until 1995. Subtle clues led scientists to justify a split. Though the birds are nearly identical, the streaks on the chest of the Nelson’s sparrow are noticeably blurrier than the saltmarsh sparrow. The song is slightly different. But most importantly, their breeding habits are different.
The saltmarsh tends to return to Maine earlier than the Nelson’s, claiming the best nesting sites first. But they risk nest failure because of spring flooding if their timing is bad. The Nelson’s sparrow nests later, avoiding the flood risk, but having to settle for second pick of the nest sites.
The range of both birds is different, too. They nest side-by-side in Scarborough Marsh. The overlap in range continues north to Weskeag Marsh in Thomaston. Everything north of there is a Nelson’s sparrow; everything south of the overlap zone is a saltmarsh sparrow.
Some common sparrows lack breast streaks. The chipping sparrow is widespread this time of year. It is the smallest sparrow and prefers open areas near forest, but never in forest. It’s a typical sparrow of campuses, parks and logging roads.
The white-throated sparrow is an abundant nester along the edges of Maine’s forests and is commonly seen under feeders in migration. The white-crowned sparrow is similar, but it is seen only for brief periods during migration. The tree sparrow has a smudge of color in the center of its otherwise plain breast. It winters in Maine, where it often forages beneath feeders. The lark sparrow is another wandering migrant that shows up in Maine annually, though it is rare.
To recap: The song sparrow is abundant and widespread. All other sparrows confine themselves to their favorite places. Habitat clues are invaluable. From now on, the first question to ask yourself when trying to identify an LBJ is this: Where is it?
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.