There are hundreds of birds out there that qualify as creatures of only passing interest. To birders they are list items, worthy of a check mark, but quickly relegated to L.B.B. status (as in Little Brown Bird) by most of us. Most of these category candidates are un-spectacular when put into a comparative world occupied by Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, and jewel-like Hummingbirds. Members of the Sparrow clan often head this bland list because they small, brownish, and behaviorally unspectacular. Very few people have T-shirts featuring sparrow images on them. I chose to say “very few” in place of the word “none” in the previous sentence because just as I am sure that there are people with pictures of pseudo-scorpions on their T-shirts, I know there are die-hard sparrowphiles with embroidered sparrows on their bill caps.
Even though I personally like sparrows, I am guilty of ignoring them as well as the next person. This fact is true even though I know there is no such thing as a plain “sparrow” and that my ignorance is just that – ignorance. Like any other group sparrows come in many different forms and are equipped with varied talents. Among songsters, for instance, the bold declarations of the Lincoln’s Sparrow are un-matched and the rich rufous hues of the Fox Sparrow are “handsome” in comparison to any fowl. But the truth is that all sparrows are little and, even though their hues vary from near red to near black, they are basically brown. Their lifestyles are equally brown – secretive and slinky.
I am writing this blog entry to prove that even L.B.B. sparrows have something to offer (call it the weakest of my New Year’s resolutions). On a recent walk at Crosswinds Marsh I was handed a random example in the form of a Swamp Sparrow. True to form, the bird came and went – melting into the browness after pausing only a few seconds for a few hasty portrait shots. O.K., I said, this will do.
It would be a cop-out to spend the rest of this space simply describing the beautiful subtle shades of this bird, but we should pay some attention to this. All sparrows have attractively patterned backs with streaks of cream interspersed with dark and red-brown, and this species is no exception. Perhaps the most attractive features on the winter version of the Swamp Sparrow are the clear gray cheeks and orangish head stripes. The breast is plain and un-speckled. Here in the upper mid-west, the breeding and the wintering ranges of these sparrows overlap, so we are as likely to see the grayish winter birds as well as the browner summer ones (am I overusing the word brown here?).
A trait that does not appear obvious in my portrait, but is crucial to the species, are the legs. Certainly all legs are crucial (needless to say), but those of the Swamp Sparrow are slightly longer than other closely related species. They use these longer legs to wade into shallow water in order to pick out invertebrates for food. They will even stick their heads under the water surface to achieve their foraging task if necessary. They are masters of all manner of wetland habitats from swamps and marshlands to sedge meadows and bogs. During the winter they resort to foraging for seeds in these same habitats. Thus (need to say) they are called Swamp Sparrows.
It is always fun to look at scientific names whenever one is running out of fascinating things to say (not that I am, but let’s be real here). The official name of the Swamp Sparrow is Melospiza georgiana (Latham). This basically means “the song finch from Georgia.” At first this seems totally inappropriate, but it makes sense. Melospiza, the genus name, is a combination of the Greek words for melody and finch. There are three species in this genus (Lincoln’s, Song, and Swamp Sparrows) and collectively they are called song sparrows. The species name, georgiana, comes from the fact that the first described specimen of this bird originated from the state of Georgia.
The 50 year old English naturalist, who named the thing in 1790, never set foot in Georgia or North America for that matter. His name was John Latham. A physician by profession and a naturalist by choice, Latham was a productive “bird namer.” One of his surviving portraits apparently shows him as a 10 year old child with a bird on his hand, so he was definitely a bird guy from the get-go. In some circles he is known as the “Grandfather of Australian Ornithology.” Among the many Aussie species he named, crossword enthusiasts around the world can thank him for naming the Emu. I guess this would also make him the grandfather of crosswords as well. Why he is not called the “Father of Australian Ornithology” must indicate that he never actually went to Australia either (a guess on my part). Perhaps the “Cousin twice removed of Australian Ornithology” was already taken.
It can be safely said that the Swamp Sparrow specimen that crossed the naming desk of Mr. Latham over two hundred years ago was a winter migrant. This is the only way a Swamp Sparrow would have been in Georgia. So, the original specimen would have looked very similar to our pictured individual – a grayish brown bird. It is also safe to say that I have gone over my L.B.B. word limit and can thank Mr. Latham, and my new year’s resolution, for that.