Sparrows amoung our smallest songbirds

By Jay V. Huner
Journal Correspondent

Birders often refer to sparrows as LBJs. No, they are not talking about the late President Lyndon B. Johnson. They are most often referring to sparrows. These are amongst are smallest songbirds and are basically brownish in color. However, close examination allows separation of the 25 or so sparrows that are found in our region sometime in the year. The problem is that it's often difficult to watch the sparrows closely because they frighten easily and disappear into cover.

There are fewer than six species that occur in the Piney Woods region year round. Most arrive in mid-fall, spend the winter, and depart by early May for northern breeding grounds. The most common species are the Chipping Sparrow and the Savannah Sparrow. Both species form large flocks in winter. Chipping Sparrows congregate around back yard feeders even in urban areas. Savannah Sparrows are birds of grassy fields and can be found in good numbers along rural roadsides. I've never found them at feeders.

Some Chipping Sparrows nest throughout the piney woods every spring but most return to more northerly breeding grounds. Savannah Sparrows don't nest in the South.

Chipping Sparrows are reddish brown above and gray below. Backs are streaked. In the spring and summer, they have bright rufous crowns, prominent white "eyebrows" and black line through their eyes. In fall and winter, the crowns are a more muted brown and there is no white "eyebrows". Alternation of color patterns between breeding season and non-breeding season is common in many bird species.

Savannah Sparrows are pretty consistent in color year round. They are brown above and white with crisp streaking below. Their upper parts are brown with black streaks and the under parts are white with thin brown or black streaks on the breasts and flanks. There is a characteristic small yellow patch on the face in front of the eye. Legs and feet are pinkish in color.

Both sparrows are about five and a half inches long. Chipping Sparrows are slender when compared to Savannah Sparrows. Chipping Sparrows have fairly long tails while Savannah Sparrows have short, notched tails.

Readers may be interested to learn what an early naturalist, Edward Forbush had to say about Chipping Sparrows in 1929. He described them as "the little brown-capped pensioner of the dooryard and lawn, that comes about farmhouse doors to glean crumbs shaken from the tablecloth by thrifty housewives." People have found their nests among hanging strands of chili peppers, or an old fashioned mower inside a tool shed, and on a hanging basket filled with moss. However, they normally build their flimsy nests low in shrubs and trees.

While the Savannah Sparrow name seems to be associated with the species' fondness for grassy areas, in fact, the famed nineteenth century ornithologist Alexander Wilson described and named the species based on a specimen collected in Savannah, Georgia! But, there is a bit of controversy over the identity of this species. There are at least four different subspecies which differ somewhat depending on where they are found with some specialists contending that there are at least three separate species.

Some sparrows are very melodic. That is the reason why the Song Sparrow acquired its name. However, both Chipping and Savannah sparrows are hardly songsters. Chipping Sparrows generate a loud, trilling song. That of Savannah Sparrows is an insect-like song.

Ironically, I can hear the song of nesting Chipping Sparrows in central Louisiana but despite encountering thousands upon thousands of Savannah Sparrows, I have been unable to hear them in the field. My hearing simply doesn't detect the "song" or call.