It’s natural. Inexperienced birders quickly learn to love warblers and hate sparrows. Warblers are bright and colorful. Sparrows are … meh. They’re brown, streaky and often uncooperative. Many birders give up on trying to identify them and just call them LBJs – little brown jobs.
It gets worse. Starting right about now, and persisting for the rest of the summer, youngsters will be off the nest. They’ll mingle with adults but look different. As happens with many species, vulnerable fledglings need more camouflage. They tend to be streakier than their parents and may not look much like their parents at all.
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Fortunately, there’s hope. Most sparrows prefer specific habitats. Sometimes you can tell what a sparrow is, just by where it is.
Let’s dispense with house sparrows. This old-world species was introduced from Europe in 1851, and it’s not closely related to our native sparrows. House sparrows are city dwellers, and frequently nest in manmade structures. Their natural habitat is the indoor garden center at Home Depot.
There are more than two dozen North American sparrow species, and 16 are found in Maine. Song sparrows are the most common. They’re generalists, found just about everywhere, from forest edges to urban backyards. If you spot a sparrow flitting around in the bushes, most likely it’s a song sparrow.
If song sparrow doesn’t match what you’re seeing, try chipping sparrow. These tiny sparrows with rusty caps prefer open areas along the edges of good cover. They are perfectly happy in parks, campuses and golf courses, but also along the edges of logging roads deep in the woods.
Savannah sparrows look much like song sparrows, but they’re a whiter shade of pale, with finer streaks. Savannah sparrows are strictly grassland birds. While playing golf, you may see song sparrows around the parking lot, chipping sparrows along the fairway where you play, and Savannah sparrows deep in the rough where I play.
Lincoln’s sparrows also look a lot like song sparrows. They’re a little smaller and darker, and they’re found almost exclusively in bogs. They’re a treat to find along the Orono Bog Boardwalk.
Vesper sparrows in Maine are confined mostly to blueberry barrens. Fox sparrows are restricted to the spruce forests and mountaintops of northern Maine, except in migration when they sometimes appear under bird feeders. And where do you think swamp sparrows are found?
White-throated sparrows are abundant Maine breeders. You don’t have to go too far into the woods to find tons of them. They may visit your feeders during migration. They are seldom confused with other sparrows, with one exception.
White-crowned sparrows are similar, but their crowns are more dramatically colored, in a bold black-and-white striped pattern. White-crowned sparrows breed across northern Canada, but they pass through Maine in waves during migration. Don’t worry about finding one now. They’ve already moved through, and they’re currently making babies up in Labrador.
Three more species are listed with Maine ranges in your guidebook, but you’re unlikely to find them in person. Small numbers of grasshopper sparrows breed in Cumberland and York Counties, notably in Kennebunk Plains. Clay-colored sparrows nest there occasionally as well. Field sparrows are more common in southern New England, although their breeding range extends slightly north of the Piscataqua River. You’re not likely to stumble upon any of these by accident.
Here are two more species you don’t have to worry about: Nelson’s sparrow and saltmarsh sparrow. They are denizens of salt marshes, found nowhere in Maine outside of these marshes. They are so similar that until 1995 they were considered the same species. Experts can tell them apart but just barely. The breast streaks on the Nelson’s sparrow are slightly blurrier.
Fortunately, there is only a small portion of the coast where Nelson’s and saltmarsh sparrow ranges overlap. Any bird north of Weskeag Marsh in Thomaston is a Nelson’s. Anything south of Scarborough Marsh is a saltmarsh sparrow. Regardless, you won’t find one unless you really work at it. They’re secretive, and they live in wet areas where you wouldn’t normally walk. Nobody sees one by accident.
American tree sparrows are only here in winter. Lark sparrows are only here in migration, and then only when they wander in accidentally.
That’s the problem with guidebooks. When there are 16 sparrows on the page, each one appears to be equally likely. They’re not. You should assess habitat and make your identification accordingly. Or you can just call everything a song sparrow. You’ll be right 70 percent of the time.