Until I started taking a more serious interest in birding, to me a sparrow meant the ubiquitous house sparrow. A passer domesticus, rarely alone, was always at the feeders when I was a kid growing up in Ohio. Years later, I marveled at how the house sparrows thrived amid the skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan, flitting about Rockefeller Center where I worked and making a life in every crack and cranny they could find.
As I began looking more closely at the birds fueling up on and below my home feeder, I noted slightly smaller sparrows with rusty caps that were obviously different than the routine house sparrows that I never gave more than a casual glance. Intrigued, I pulled out one of our bird books and was delighted to find I had identified these warm weather visitors as chipping sparrows.
The chippers were my port of entry into the wider passerine world. In the winter, I noticed the striped helmets of what turned out to be white-throated sparrows pecking at the snow to harvest the seeds that other birds had sloppily cast down from the feeder by our back windows. I didn’t nail down the ID until taking a few photos and zooming in to see the yellow patch at the bills. I can’t explain it, but the white throats that visit the house don’t have much of that yellow coloration, while those in the woods two miles away at the Pole Farm display the yellow easily discernible with the naked eye.
My birder friend Laura taught me to identify song sparrows that seem marked by a magnetic force pulling in the streaks of their upper breasts into a dot-like mass in the center of their chests. Over this past summer, I started noticing their distinct, charming song that gives them their name.
One rainy spring day a few years ago, I looked out the window with surprise to see a white-crowned sparrow standing at the edge of our patio. He was just passing through, not to be observed at home again, although I do see his relatives at the Pole Farm from time to time.
One memorable morning I spotted and identified several Savannah sparrows, with their distinctive yellow eye lines, gathered in the grasses near one of the observation decks at the Pole Farm. I have seen many since.
Another morning on a path I spotted a sparrow feeding on the ground and trained my binoculars to find a salmon-colored beak, one of the tell-tale signs of the field sparrow. It took another birder to point out to me later that I’d been hearing field sparrows all along. I had not yet learned their song, which is paced like the speeding-up sound of a Ping Pong ball dropping onto a table.
I don’t have a photo of a grasshopper sparrow, but one of the expert birders I happened upon pointed a few out in a field. I’ve also spotted a few swamp sparrows and I’m proud to report I was able one day to point out a Lincoln’s sparrow, with a pale buff wash on its streaky chest, to other birders.
I’ve also been delighted in recent months to get close to some American tree sparrows, with their rusty caps and bi-colored bills. They are exquisite.
I remain hopeful to spot a vesper sparrow. My Merlin app sound monitor noted one near where I was walking one day, but if I saw him, it didn’t register.
Until this moment while typing this post, I had not totaled the number of sparrow species I’ve spotted. I have to use two hands to count all 11! The vesper would make an even dozen, and there are rarer varieties who come along in these parts.
It’s a revelation to learn that after decades of having taken sparrows for granted, how much my enjoyment of the natural world has increased by sighting so many different varieties. Who knows what wonders await on my next walk in the woods or at what might show up in the yard tomorrow!