Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Savannah Sparrow: Not Just Another "Little Brown Job"

The group of birds casually referred to by birders as "Little Brown Jobs," or LBJs, is perhaps the group that is most commonly feared and therefore frequently avoided by beginning birders.  While anything small and drab could be considered a Little Brown Job, the group typically includes wrens, finches and, perhaps most often, sparrows.
Ah yes, the sparrows, in all their abundant shades of brown diversity.
But, as I am fond of saying, there is always more to something than what first appears when we take a moment to slow down and really look.
The Savannah Sparrow, for instance, has a beautiful feature that readily distinguishes it from other LBJs: adult birds have a sunny yellow patch between their bill and eyes. 

Savannah Sparrows are indeed brown, with white underparts and delicate streaking.  The crisp markings across their body give them a neat and tidy appearance.  Other distinguishing features include a tail that is short relative to the body, a small but stout pink bill, and almost absurdly long toes.  (You've probably never looked closely at a sparrow's toes until today.  You're welcome.)

Savannah Sparrows are one of my favorite sparrows, and I encounter them regularly in the Great Central Valley throughout most of the year.  Savannah Sparrows inhabit open areas of low vegetation, such as grasslands, marshlands, farmland, even tundra in the summer, though they are not named after the savannah-like habitat they favor; they were named by a 19th century ornithologist for a specimen collected in Savannah, Georgia.  Even so, the name is a good way to remember where you are likely to encounter this sparrow! 
These birds range across nearly the entire North American continent, from northern Canada and Alaska in the summer to Mexico and Central America in the winter.  In California, they can be seen in the Central Valley from September through May, but remain on the coast and, to a lesser extent, in the Sierra Nevada year-round.  Along the coast, Savannah Sparrows inhabit open tidal salt marshes, environments that have been severely reduced over the last century-and-a-half.  (I see them consistently near the salt marshes around Moss Landing Harbor.)
Savannah Sparrows are ground-foragers, consuming nutritionally rich insects during the breeding season and switching almost entirely to a diet of small seeds during the winter months.  The flight of the Savannah Sparrow is usually quick and low as it moves through the grassland, seeking food and cover from predators.  This darting behavior can make watching (and photographing) them a challenge!  But males do perch conspicuously to sing and defend their territory. 

Though they are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America, the Savannah Sparrow often goes unnoticed, or brushed off as just another LBJ.  Don't let that be your experience with this exquisite little bird!  Take the time to admire and really get to know this one.  You'll be glad that you did!

For more on little brown sparrows, check out these articles:
Common Sparrow ID Tips (English House Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow & Song Sparrow)
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Bell's Sparrow

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