An Appreciation For Sparrows

text and photos by Brian Willson

Mud Season on the 44th parallel carries with it such a press of potential energy that it makes me want to let out a scream sometimes. It slogs along like a gravid snail, nearly bursting at its seams. Already April teases with hints of the coming flood—the appearance of bluebirds, the courtship of phoebes, the cries of the first ospreys—but our true wild bird explosion won’t happen for a few days yet. Come May I’ll be in birding heaven. Because I like to photograph warblers. And they’re (mostly) still on their way. It’ll mean a flurry of activity when they do arrive—it’s hard to spot those little musical jewels once the trees have leafed out fully—but I don’t mind.

Meanwhile, though, I must be content with “first-of-year” sightings. Witness that FOY pair of savannah sparrows that arrived on the foggy Beech Hill summit the other day. Before long their thin trills will echo down its treeless hillsides.

The certainty of savannahs got me thinking of this commonly overlooked group of birds that we call New World Sparrows. Most are not gaudy like a cardinal, not musical like a thrush, not aerobatic like a tree swallow. It’s easy to miss Maine’s many sparrow species. Which is a shame. Because you can see them pretty much any time of year.

Plus, these little brown seed- and bug-eaters have an understated and underappreciated beauty. “Underappreciated,” in fact, might describe the whole family—or most of its members. (The large, vocal eastern towhee, technically a sparrow, has a lot of fans at Beech Hill.) But as with many subtleties, when you start paying them attention, you’ll get rewards.

Take the little wave of fox sparrows that invaded my daily hiking hill for a couple weeks in late March and early April. These plump, rich-colored birds only visit during migration, in fact, en route to the boreal scrub far north of us. But during the brief time they’re here, they show off their rich rust-and-gray plumage and tune up their sweet singing voices. For days I anticipated their suddenly moving on—yet when they did, still I felt a little dejected.

Or take our resident song sparrows that have already arrived and are staking out territories. This fairly nondescript species is common locally in brush and hedgerows. It’s not much to look at—has kind of plain, dull-brownish streaks with a spot in the middle of its breast—but what interests me about the song sparrow is its song. It’s a song you can easily identify by its loud string of trills and chimes. Each bird has a particular song that it’ll sing its whole life, unwaveringly. But unlike most other species, no two individuals ever share the same song. The chimes will be fewer or more numerous, will come at the beginning or the end; the trills will occupy a different pitch or conclude with a crazy hiccup. If you train yourself, you can recognize individual birds by their voices. How well I remember my sense of sadness when the song sparrow that showed up one spring sang different music than the one who’d come the three or four years before.

A lot of white-throats live around here, too. White-throated sparrows are famous for, well, their bright white throats and repeatedly calling out for “old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!” You’re also sure to hear our onomatopoeic chipping sparrow rattling off its repetitive call from the crown of on occasional tree. Field sparrows have recently begun nesting on Beech Hill, meantime, and the slopes will soon resound with their distinctive, bouncy calls.

If you know where—or when—to look, you can spot dozens of sparrow species in Maine. Twice last winter, for instance, in the cold and snow on the open Beech Hill trail, I saw American tree sparrows (another migratory, far northern species). Over at the Weskeag Marsh in South Thomaston, you can find a pair of similarly sharp-tailed, tidal sparrows called Nelson’s and salt marsh. And during fall migration on Monhegan Island you can list a number of uncommon sparrows, like lark and clay-colored (two western species) and white-crowned (another north-nesting migrant).

But even our one abundant Old World Sparrow—the immigrant, aptly named house sparrow that you might see outside (even inside) a big box store—holds a certain allure if you study it closely.

I haven’t named them all. It takes effort and a will to find them. But I believe an appreciation for sparrows—besides helping endure this current calm before the storm—brings with it an insight into the nature of all subtle things.