That’s the title of a section in my new Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. Emberizine Sparrows and Their Allies. I like that. I like the idea of sparrows having allies. I’m picturing those small, feisty birds gathering their armies against hawks and cats and other members of what sparrows would regard as the Axis of Evil.
Emberizine sparrows, Sibley informs me, are “a large group [consisting] mostly small,streaked brownish birds of grassy and brushy areas” and they include rufous-sided towhees and dark-eyed juncos, neither of which are brownish birds, along with all sorts of sparrows---chipping sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, Lincoln’s sparrows, Vesper sparrows, swamp sparrows, field sparrows, salt-marsh sparrows, seaside sparrows, but not…sparrows.
Not the sparrows you’re probably used to, at any rate, the fussy, restless, chattering sparrows flocking noisily in bushes and small trees and agitating the branches with their nervous inability to settle down, the huffy little birds pecking in the gutters of houses, kicking up the leaf litter on lawns, taking over the sidewalks in roving gangs that scatter ahead of you as you approach only to regroup just a few yards straight ahead where when you catch up with them they’ll repeat the process, stirring up trouble in front of park benches and under the tables of outdoor cafes, those sparrows.
Those sparrows are house sparrows and Sibley places them in a group called Finches and Old World Sparrows. Old World as in Europe. House sparrows, which are sometimes called English sparrows, are descended from birds brought here in the middle of the 19th Century to be sold as pets. Somehow a flock of them was let loose in Central Park in 1850 and the breed has been busily increasing and multiplying ever since.
The house sparrows have been making a lot of noise and commotion around here the last couple of days. I’m watching a flock of them now from the front porch, furiously chasing each other back and forth between our bushes and our neighbor’s trees and feeders. They seem to be in a real tizzy. When I watched them at it yesterday I mused out loud, “Must be Sparrows Get Laid Day.” But then I realized that probably something far more wholesome was going on, a big family outing as fledglings tried out their wings and got lessons in avoiding cats and hawks from their scolding parents.
I like this bit from Sibley’s brief on house sparrows: “avidly seeks out handouts such as bread crumbs and french fries at parks and parking lots.”
House sparrows are city, town, and farm dwelling birds but they like to get out and around. I see them irregularly and, to me, incongruously on the beaches on around Chatham where they swoop down from the aspens and beach plums in behind the dunes when the seagulls aren’t looking to forage in the strings of sea grass left behind by the retreating tide. Beach bum birds.
The sparrows I more used to seeing down at the Cape are members of the Emberizine sparrows and their allies. Song sparrows. You don’t see them on the beach. They prefer to sit on telephone wires and sing all day long from there. They’re called song sparrows because compared to most other sparrows their calls are musical, but they really don’t have much in the way of a song. My Audubon Guide renders it as Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle. Sibley offers a prosaic and phonetic seet seet seet to zleeeeeee tipo zeet zeet. Over and over again. But it’s sung from the heart and I love them for it.
Photo via Wikipedia.