When I was growing up in southern England, there were sparrows everywhere, and we took them for granted. Children fed them breadcrumbs as they hung around the tables in outdoor cafes. They looked like these Cotswold ones, and when I grew up I eventually learnt their proper name was the House Sparrow, Passer domesticus:
The UK has a second species, the Tree Sparrow, Passer montanus, but until quite recently I never knew that worldwide there were many many species of sparrows. In fact around here in Maine there are twelve fairly common ones, and four more that are seen occasionally. To me they were just what birders call LBJ’s, or Little Brown Jobs. Who cares? Well, we all should. Because in England they have declined precipitously since my childhood, with house sparrows down 71% and tree sparrows down a horrifying 93% from 1970 to 2008, and that’s what can happen if no-one pays attention.
To encourage those of you reading this in the US to look more closely, here are the seven species I have photographed here in Maine. The larger number of species here relates partly to the greater land area, and partly to how birds are classified as, for example, sparrows vs finches. You will see from their Latin names that they are unrelated to the Old World sparrows, and indeed they are not all related to each other! Don’t worry if you find it hard to tell them apart, so do I, and if I’ve got any of them wrong, do let me know.
I’ll start with the American Tree sparrow, Spizelloides arborea, which stays here most of the year, even February:
The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, is here from early spring to late fall, and it breeds here. It is quite a large sparrow with a black spot in the middle of its breast:
A more familiar pose in this shot:
And it has a healthy appetite, even tackling sizable dragonflies (unfortunately, since they keep down the mosquito population):
I particularly like the Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina, with its orangey-brown head. It is a summer resident.
The White-Crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, just migrates through. The first shot is an adult, heading north in the spring, and the second shot is a juvenile on its way south in the fall.
The Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, isn’t seen so often because it lives, surprise surprise, in swamps, but here is a rather scruffy one:
My second-to-last is probably my favorite, the White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis, with its white throat (obviously) and bright yellow by its eyes (Birders have a name for this patch of feathers, the “lores”). It breeds here in Maine, and some even winter over.
My seventh (and last) is sort of cheating: it turns out that the European House Sparrow emigrated to the US 150 years before me, in the mid-1800s, when one Nicholas Pike released 16 sparrows in Brooklyn, and here it is in Maine:
I hope you never look at sparrows as just LBJ’s again.
PS The species I still haven’t seen are the Field, Fox, Savannah, Lincoln’s, and Vesper sparrows.
PPS You might want to read this short Smithsonian piece about our relationship with sparrows. Among other things, it tells the terrible saga of Mao Zedong’s edict that all sparrows should be destroyed, and the consequences. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/the-story-of-the-most-common-bird-in-the-world-113046500/
*My title comes from Hamlet “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”. Shakespeare uses this to suggest that we must resign ourselves to death as being all part of God’s plan, but as far as the sparrows go, I say let’s fight for their survival. This means preserving their habitat and protecting their migration paths.