Friday, January 11, 2008

My Spark Bird

For those of you who might not be familiar with all the birding ins and outs, a "spark bird" is the bird that got you into birding, that sparked your interest and got you hooked into this crazy hobby/sport/avocation.

For most people, it is something big and dramatic, like a Pileated Woodpecker or a Great Blue Heron. Or, it is something rare, mysterious, or unusual. For me, it was sparrows, often disparagingly called LBBs (Little Brown Birds) or LBJs (Little Brown Jobs.)

I mark my transition from "passive" birder (keeping the bird feeders filled and watching them from my window) to active birder to the year 1994. That winter, I decided to start sorting out all the LBBs into their respective species, instead of calling them all "some kind of sparrow."

Most people curse sparrows, as they are small, brown, and tend to hide in the tall grass when you want to see them, so identifying them can be tough. With a little bit of work, I began to sort out the LBBs in my yard. As it turned out, some of those sparrows were (House) Finches and (Carolina) Wrens, and were not sparrows at all.

The bird that grabbed me and made me want more was the White-crowned Sparrow. Look at this guy:

How could you not love a bird like this? Sharp black and white striped head, crisp clean shirt-front, pink bill, doesn't he look ready to go to a formal party? You can't tell it from this photo, but Zonotrichia leucophrys is larger than your average, everyday sparrow, too: 7" long as compared to 6.25" for the common Song Sparrow or 5.5" for the teeny Chipping Sparrow. That doesn't sound like a lot of difference, but you can really see it in a group of ground feeding LBBs.

Something else I love about the White-crowneds is the way they stop feeding and stand up "on their tippy-toes," making themselves very tall and thin. I think they must be searching for predators. It is a behavior I don't see in the other birds feeding around them.

For a while, I was very confused by birds like this:

Then, I started comparing them to the LBBs I knew. Clear breast, not streaky, pink bill, striped crown (ignore the colors for now) and the clincher - the same behavior of standing erect and looking all around. I finally figured this was some sort of color variation on White-crowned Sparrows, like the tan-striped versus white-striped varieties of White-throated Sparrows.

With a little research, I learned that first winter (i
mmature) White-crowneds have a brown and tan striped pattern. Now, I see several at my feeders every winter, and have lovingly dubbed them "Brown-crowned Sparrows."

I only get White (and Brown)-crowned sparrows in the winter, so I almost never get to hear them sing. They are one of the first birds to return in late fall and one of the last to leave in spring. Like most sparrows, they love the suet dough.

"Brown-crowned Sparrow" diggin' the suet dough
Eyes bigger than the stomach.
A field mark for many birds, not just WCSP

In the spring of 1994, I took my first "warbler walk" and the sight and sound of those tiny jewels cemented my interest in birding, but that is a story for another post.

. . .

Word of the Day:

Coypu: The Coypu, Myocastor coypus, also called the nutria, is a large, semiaquatic rodent native to South America but recently introduced to other continents for fur production

*Thanks to the three ring circus of Bill of the Birds, Rondeau Ric, and Julie "Science Chimp" Zickefoose for the inspiration for day's WOTD.


holly said...

Pretty much off topic, but tonight on Yahoo Answer Groups, someone linked your blog in regards to a dog question. Someone had asked why dogs wag and one of the replies had the link, along with a note that 'here are a lot of photos of interesting dog behavior'. I just had to let you know!

And although I am not a birder, the pics and info are great. I love them. Who knows, maybe you'll convert me someday!

holly said...

(Shoot, I forgot. The link was to your 'dog park visit' entry.)

Susan Gets Native said...

Your spark bird was more interesting than mine.
I had feed the birds sporadically after Geoff bought me a feeder. We were out in the front yard about 5 years ago and this "weirdly-colored, weirdly-flying" bird zoomed into the crabapple tree. I couldn't believe was a little woodpecker! That seemed SO EXOTIC to me. I ran in the house and looked through some books and found the downy. And the rest, as they say, is HISTORY.
I can't even remember what it was like NOT to be a birder, know what I mean?

Kathy said...

Ah, so those are immature white crowned sparrows! I love the white crowned sparrows also. I'm still mostly a watch the birds at the feeder person, but do keep my eyes on the alert for birds when I'm out and about. I've loved birds since I was in elementary school. Robins have always fasinated me with their song and hopping along looking for worms.

KatDoc said...

Thanks for the info, Holly - cool that this blog was linked to the yahoo group.

Kathy, I have a confession to make: When I was first learning bird calls and songs, I would read that a bird sounded "like a robin with a sore throat" (Scarlet Tanager) or "like a robin who took voice lesson" (Rose-breasted Grosbeak) and I was chagrined to realize, I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT A ROBIN SOUNDED LIKE!!! I do, now, and also the tanager and grosbeak, but it was a pretty humbling experience.


Kathy said...

Humm, about a month ago I heard what I thought was a robin with a sad song. At the time we had 4 inches of snow on the ground, and I thought he must have been lost. I only heard him one day, and didn't actually see him. Now I'm wondering if I heard a tanager or grosbeak instead? I'll never know, I guess.

Mary said...

Kathi, I admire your patience and enthusiasm for LBJ's. You can have them. But I do love your spark bird! I've never seen a white crowned sparrow but if I ever do, I'll remember you. Looking forward to hearing about the warbler walk. Now, those birds really avoid me.