getting to know sparrows, with rick wright

I’VE WATCHED BIRDS for decades, but in one matter, the matter of sparrows, I mostly took the lazy route, simply marking down “sparrow” in my eBird checklist whenever I saw a streaky little brownish bird, not trying to figure out which sparrow. If I’d had the new book “Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows” back then, maybe I’d have behaved better.

Its author, Rick Wright, has long delved deep into the world of birds, and he has a rich academic background, too, in languages, philosophy, life sciences, and even medieval studies. Through it all he kept on birding and is a leader for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, and the author of state-specific American Birding Association guides, for Arizona and for his home state of New Jersey.

We talked about learning to identify sparrows; about the sparrows that don’t look like sparrows at all–the juncos and towhees–about how particular birds are built for migration (or not), and more. And I’ve included a book giveaway: enter to win by commenting at the very bottom of the page.

Read along as you listen to the April 8, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here). That’s an Eastern towhee, one of the biggest sparrows, up top.

getting to know your sparrows, with rick wright



Q. Yes, so what made you pick sparrows? Because in case you didn’t notice, they’re not the showiest of birds. [Laughter.]

A. Well, some of them are a little bit brown, a little bit small, and a little bit streaky. But others of them are really very colorful and very showy. People sometimes don’t remember that sparrow is the name of a family of birds, a scientific group of birds, that includes things like towhees and juncos and brush finches, some of which are quite colorful indeed.

I really have been fascinated with sparrows for a long time, though, not just because some of them are beautiful—I happen to think all of them are beautiful—but also because sparrows fall in a sort of sweet spot of challenge and diversity for North American birders.

There are lots of sparrows, but there aren’t so many that they overwhelm us. Some of them are sort of subtle and challenging, even maybe a little bit difficult to identify. But none of them is impossible.

And they’re the kind of bird that you can pretty much go out anywhere on the continent most days of the year and hope to see in good numbers. Some of them are a little bit secretive, which means that seeing them might be just the glimpse of the tail tip disappearing into a thicket, but many of them like juncos, and song sparrows, and some of the towhees are really quite brash, and they’ll fit at your feet and let them look at them close.

Q. Your very impressive academic background, and diverse academic background, comes through in the new book, because you really extensively explore not just the natural history of each species, which we would expect in a book about birds, but its really entire history—like how it got discovered, and then named, and renamed, sort of over man’s relationship with each sparrow, and how that evolved. Why was that of interest to you, that part of it?

A. Well, by temperament and by training I really, truly do believe that “the human is the measure of all things,” as someone said a long, long time ago. And I think about birds in the same way. Birds are really fascinating creatures. They’re amazing and in some cases preposterous animals. But they really assume meaning for me only once we start thinking and talking about what they had meant to people, how people have dealt with them. How people have discovered and recognized and resorted their thoughts about sparrows and all other birds.

It comes down really to the fact that I like birds a lot, and I like birding a lot. But I think birders are just fascinating.

Q. [Laughter.] O.K. Is your next project the field guide to birders?

A. [Laughter.] I’m afraid that would be a multi-volume project.

Q. I see.

A. And I’m not quite up for anything quite that monumental at the moment.

Q. Well, you say early in the new book, you say: “The answer to the question what is a sparrow depends on when and where it was asked.” So, if it’s 2019 and I’m asking in the context of a gardener lay person who loves birds, as many of my readers and listeners do, and the where could be anywhere that the internet streams, but especially the U.S., and especially the northern U.S. So, what’s a sparrow?

A. Yes, that’s a great question, and one that I deal with a bit in the book. Originally, historically, the sparrow was the house sparrow, and its close relatives in the old world, in Asia and Europe. But those birds are brown, and when Europeans came to North America, they discovered that there were brown birds here, too. And they just decided that they must be sparrows, or something close enough to the sparrows that they knew back home, that they could get away with calling them sparrows.

We know now thanks to ornithologists and other scientists who work these things out, we know now that our New World sparrows aren’t especially closely related to the Old World sparrows, the house sparrow, and the Eurasian tree sparrow, and all of their relatives.

So in North America in 2019, we define sparrow as a member of the family, the scientific family, the scientific group known as the New World sparrows, which includes lots of birds that people call sparrow, junco, towhee, bunting, brush finch—all sorts from the English names. But the important thing is that all of these birds are classified officially by ornithologists in a single family, the Passerellidae.

Q. O.K. Even if I look at … I have the Eastern edition, a small one of David Sibley’s, that I use most of the time, and that’s maybe 2003ish I think. And I have the bigger U.S. one, or North American one. And maybe I have the second edition of that, which is I don’t know, five years ago or something like that. But I think definitely in my little guide, in my Eastern one, and maybe even in the newer one, they’re in a different family than you just said. [Laughter.] And I get really confused, Rick, I get really confused.

A. Yes, well sometimes I think that that’s the hobby of people who make decisions like this, to confuse the rest of us. But what happens is that scientific taxonomy, the study of relationships, has as its goal the determination of evolutionary affinities: which birds are most closely related to others. That is to say, which birds share common ancestors most recently?

And we used to do that just by looking at these things. We talked a couple of seconds ago about the European immigrants coming to the Americas seeing brown birds and deciding, “Well, they’re brown, so they must be house sparrows like the birds we knew back home.” The techniques that are available to scientists nowadays are a little bit more sophisticated. And what it comes down to really is molecular biology. And they are using DNA and sections of DNA to deduce the descent and the evolutionary history of these birds.

And it came out, what, six, seven years ago now I guess, was the official recognition that our New World sparrows actually deserved a family entirely of their own. And they’re not as closely related to some of the birds that they had been grouped with in the past.

Q. And we pronounce that other family Emberizidae? How do we say it?

A. Yes, Emberizi-DEE, or Emberizi-DIE. However you choose to resolve the Latin diphthong.

Q. Diphthong, O.K. [laughter]. All right, so are the Old World sparrows still in there?

A. No, the Old World sparrows have their own family, again.

Q. And that is called?

A. And that is called Passeridae.

Q. So we’re looking in my older books, I’m looking in the one place. If I get a new edition, it’s going to be, the New World sparrows are going to be in a different family.

A. Yes, they’re going to be in their own distinct family.

Q. And the house sparrow is going to be all by himself.

A. Yes, in a distinct family. The house sparrows and their relatives will in another family. And the Old World buntings will be in a third family.

Q. O.K.

A. And none of this is real to the birds themselves.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. There is no such thing as a family out there that exists. But it’s an important way for humans to think about relationship and evolutionary history, and to talk about topics like that.

Q. Right. And of course gardeners are familiar with this, because we malign all the taxonomists for chromosome counting, and changing the name of our favorite plants two or three times, and then changing them back again. And we can’t keep up.

A. Yes, right, of course.

Q. So we understand. We understand.

A. Yes, it was so much easier, wasn’t it, when all you had to do was count petals and determine whether leaves were alternate or opposite?

Q. Right. So, on a less taxonomic, more natural-history level, what do all sparrows, and let’s say what do all New World sparrows, what do they have in common? Do they have types of nesting habits, or diet, or migratory habits? Is there something that we can say about them?

A. They are not all migratory. Many of them are strongly migratory: savannah sparrows, American tree sparrows move hundreds of miles in the spring, and then hundreds of miles back south in the fall. Their biology is quite varied, some of them are secretive and solitary, except in the breeding season. Others are extremely social most of the year round. What they do all have in common is diet.

Q. Ah, O.K.

A. During the warmer season, especially when they’re breeding and need to supply the young birds with protein, sparrows will switch over to an insect diet. Our birds here in temperate North America will then switch over to eating seeds in the wintertime. And that’s why feeder watching is such a great exercise for the sparrow fan, because sparrows spend the winter relatively far north, I’m in New Jersey. The sparrows that winter up here eat seeds all winter long, and that includes sunflower seeds and millet from feeders. So it’s a great thing on a cold winter’s day to sit down with a cup of hot chocolate, put your feet up, and watch the sparrows at the feeders.

Q. I think early in the book you talk about observing or inferring from the shape of the wings, the physiology of the birds, the way they’re built, in certain species, that they’re shorter-distance migrants than longer-distance migrants, and so forth. Can you speak to that? Do you know what I’m referring to?

A. Yes, that’s right.

Q. O.K., because that sort of was interesting to me. A light bulb in my head was like, “Oh, wait a minute, you could even see in their physiology some … you could extract and say aha, this one’s really built for this or that.”

A. Yes, that’s exactly right. The sparrows that tend to be very short-distance migrants, and tend to spend most of their time deep in the dark thickets, generally have very short wings and very long tails. The short wings, because they don’t need to fly that much, the long tails because when they do fly, they need to be fairly maneuverable so as not to bounce into a branch and beam themselves. Sparrows—and this is a rule that pertains to other birds, too—sparrows that are more strongly migratory tend to have longer, more pointed wings.

It means that they are better suited for long-distance flight. And one thing that I really love when I’m looking at sparrows, those that spend most of their time on the ground in the open have a set of feathers on the wing called the tertials (just one of those birder words that we use), that are very long, and cover all or most of the rest of the folded wing to protect it from the sunlight, so that those feathers that are used for flying are shielded from the deleterious effects of the sun.

So, you can actually deduce, as you say, quite a lot about the life habits of a bird by looking at the relative structures of its wings and tail. [Above illustration of wing feather types from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Feather Atlas.]

Q. And I confessed in the introduction to the show that I didn’t bother until recent years learning them, I just said “sparrow, sparrow, sparrow.” And that’s terrible, and I made myself just like I used to say “goldenrod, goldenrod, goldenrod” living in the Northeast.

And then it turns out I have five species of goldenrod on my property alone, who knew, right? But I asked an expert, and I had an epiphany, and I said, “Wow, it’s like sparrows.” [Laughter.]

According to the nearest long time bird club in my area, and people should go and find out I think either through their local Audubon chapter for instance if there’s a refuge, or whatever, or a bird club, often they have a list of the species that are seen. Or on eBird you can get a checklist for your area.

And it turns out that 14 species theoretically could be seen in my area, plus the house sparrow, which we’re not talking about. And not in every habitat, not in my backyard. But then I started to get to know them, and I guess I’ve gotten to know seven of them. [Below, the sparrow list from Margaret’s local club, Alan Devoe Bird Club; her full local species list is here.]

A. Good.

Q. Now I’m like, “Hi, how are you? I get who you are.” Some of them I see only for very brief moments. We just were talking about inferring about migratory or not migratory. Like the fox sparrow [below], one of my favorites—a beautiful bird, delightful color. But it only comes at the cusp of spring, end of winter, beginning of spring for me comes for a little while, then gone. Or the white-crowned [above]. Is that .. I feel like maybe in the fall, migration. Am I making that up, or is that when I might see them?

A. No, that’s absolutely right. Some of our more strongly migratory sparrows, and the red fox sparrow, and the white-crowned sparrow here in the East are great examples. At your latitude, you’re a bit further north than I am, at your latitude the migration windows, spring and fall for those species, can be quite concentrated. Fox sparrows, the end of October, 1st of November for a few days. And then again in early April for a few days. White-crowned sparrows, the same thing, but they tend to come a little bit later in the spring, end of April, start of May.

And that’s one of the reasons that it’s so important if you want to see these birds to be out at the right season, because it’s easy to miss them. It’s easy to miss them otherwise.

And you might a really important point, Margaret, about the ability to eliminate species from your local area by consulting friends who know more about the local birds than you do, or looking online. Some of the challenge and some of sort apparent overwhelming challenge of dealing with sparrows is that there are a lot of them.

We treat more than 70 species in the book. I think the total came out to 75, or 76. And that just sounds insuperable: how am I going to keep all those birds in mind? Well, you don’t need to. If you look at your local list, like you did …

Q. That helped me.

A. … you see that there’s a dozen, maybe two-dozen. And then you add in habitat, the kinds of areas that they like to inhabit within that geographic area, and you’re just not going to see a saltmarsh sparrow in your backyard.

Q. No.

A. So, that eliminates others. Before you know It, you’ve got it down to a list that’s quite manageable. And if you concentrate on your seven, or your 14, you’re going to learn them.

Q. Exactly. And that reminds me of that great quote Pete Dunne has written, and he said in an interview once to me, that “Birds are almost always where they’re supposed to be.”

A. [Laughter.] Yes.

Q. So, I can take the 14 list, and like you said, I haven’t got a swamp, and there’s the swamp sparrow. Whatever, you know? Are there’s some that I may not expect. That has really given me the confidence to try to meet and get familiar with the smaller number. And I think the great thing about something like eBird, an interactive tool, because you can browse, you can search through for your area. And you can see what other people have seen in your literal area. I mean sometimes there’s people posting records even very close by, and that’s another great thing.

So, that’s how I got my confidence to at least learn a few.

A. Right, right.

Q. So, I see a bird, I think it might be a sparrow, hopefully I’ve narrowed down my list. But what should I be looking for? Which of the visual clues is it that are most important?

A. If you want to identify a sparrow, the party line has been for the better part of a century, more than a century even, to look at the head markings. I don’t know about you, but when I’m confronted with a little brown bird that’s maybe hanging out in a brush pile in the dark, and I understand that those head markings are only a millimeter wide, that’s a little bit discouraging. What I like to do instead is get a sense of how long the tail is. If it’s a long tail, it eliminates some species. If it’s a short tail, it’ll eliminate others.

Then just keep moving forward on the bird. Is there a lot of contrast between the lower back and the tail? Is the wing heavily marked? Is it reddish or is it brownish? Is the general overall color of the bird a warm, rich brown? Or is it a cold, grayish brown?

And by the time you get to the head and start to look for those really little teeny, tiny marks, you’re probably going to have a good sense of which two or three species you’re probably looking at.

Q. Some are quite … I was looking at the range maps, while I was reading your book I was also looking at range maps in my field guide, sort of to see who are the most common, and really where are they? Like the song sparrow [above] is pretty widespread I think. Maybe the tree sparrow.

A. Song sparrows are terrifically widespread. American tree sparrow is quite widespread from east to west, but they don’t winter much farther south than say southern-central New Jersey, central Kansas, northern New Mexico. So, they drop out pretty much by the time you get to the genuine South. But the song sparrow is hugely wide spread, the savannah sparrow breeds way out in western Alaska.

And others of them have extremely limited ranges. One of the my favorites is the rufous-winged sparrow, breeds only in a little tiny bit of Arizona, and a strip of the Mexican state of Sonora, and a bit of the Mexican state of Sinaloa. So, that’s really a quite limited range for a bird in North America.

Q. Any general clue for telling males from females? That’s a part I haven’t figured out with sparrows at all yet.

A. Yes, and in many species it’s just not possible.

Q. O.K.

A. Something like the spotted towhee or the Eastern towhee, the males are going to be black, the females are going to be brown, and there it’s relatively easy. In most species though the plumage differences, if any exist at all, are so subtle that only the birds can use them. We believed for a long, long time that only males sang. But that is a notion that is subject to revision in many species of songbirds.

Q. Yes, yes.

A. And so just because a bird is singing doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a male.

Q. You just mentioned the towhees and of course when I started looking at bird books, it was a Peterson guide, and it was called the rufous-sided towhee then, I believe. And always in the same parts of my yard I would see kicking, and stuff being rustled up. And I’d hear that kicking sound. And there it was, every spring, making a ruckus, its own little special form of ruckus. [Laughter.] Towhees, and then juncos, they’re in the book, they’re in this family. Tell us a little bit briefly about what’s different or alike about them and the other sparrows.

A. Well, it’s interesting that you talk about the ruckus. I always tell people that if they hear something that looks like miniature heavy machinery in a brushpile, it’s probably a towhee.

Q. Yes, it is. [Laughter.]

A. Towhees [top of page, the Eastern towhee] are some of our biggest sparrows. The largest of them in the U.S., the Abert towhee, weighs about as much as the small shorebirds, so it’s a real chunk of a bird.

Juncos [below, dark-eyed junco], which are also sparrows in spite of their name, and in spite of their gray and pink plumage, are some of my favorites. And they’re interesting because even though we currently believe that we’ve got only two species in the U.S., the dark-eyed junco and the yellow-eyed junco, they have been split, and lumped, and lumped, and split into any number of combinations of species and sub-species over the decades.

And knowing that makes it a lot of fun to look at juncos and see if you can pick out some of that geographic and individual variation. Some juncos are brown, some are blackish-blue. Some have pink on the sides, some have gray on the sides. And whether we consider those species or not, and in a very coarse formulation whether they’re countable or not if you happen to be the type of birder who keeps lists, it’s still just fascinating to see how much variation there is in this group of what are otherwise very familiar birds.

Q. Yes, and in the winter they of course from where I am would be, “feeder bird,” and I have large numbers of them reliably every day. And the diversity, even in winter, I don’t know how their plumage changes, but even at that time of year looking at them in the ground, kind of picking up seeds, every one is a little different.

A. That’s right, that’s absolutely right.

Q. Yes, they’re quite beautiful.

A.Yes, and if you spend enough time watching your feeder, you will sooner or later find a bird that has a little bit of extra white here and there …

Q. Yes, yes.

A. … or has an asymmetrical patch of brown. And you get to know that bird as an individual, and you get a sense of how long it stays at your feeder, and when it leaves to go farther south in the winter. And whether perhaps it comes back on its way north in the spring.

Q. Well, Rick Wright, the “Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows” is a big work; you must have worked a long time on it. Lots and lots and lots of stories as well as all the natural histories of these birds. Thank you so much for making the time to talk today.

A. Well, thank you Margaret, I always love talking about birds.

Q. I bet you do, thank you.

enter to win the book

I’LL BUY A COPY OF Rick Wright’s new “Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

Tell the truth: What’s your sparrow IQ? Have you been lazy about learning to tell one from the other, as I was until very recently, or have they grabbed your attention? Any sparrows you especially enjoy seeing that you want to tell us about?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, April 16, 2019. U.S. and Canada only. Good luck to all!

more from rick wright

RICK WRIGHT’S online supplement to the new field guide is almost complete, he reports, and can be found at this link. Rick says he will “probably be adding and adjusting indefinitely, of course, but the supplement includes links to maps and conservation status along with notes on habitat and behavior and measurements.” Good stuff. Rick’s website is Birding New Jersey. His upcoming tours with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours are listed on his page there.
(Photos except as noted from “Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America,” used with permission.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the April 8, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. ColleenAK says:

    My favorite one is the fox sparrow! We’ve had a pair (and, by now, their offspring) in our backyard for years. We call them the Brownies. They nest in the arborvitae hedge on the east edge of our backyard. We know they are the same family because they know us! When I go out back, they stay put. Their favorite watering hole is a large clay planter next to the deck that I use as a hose pot – I keep fresh water in the bottom for them. They also like to perch on a particular clematis cage that I can see from the kitchen window. Such a lovely couple :-)

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