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WHAT’S IN A NAME? (A MODEST PROPOSAL!)

By Nic.Korte

There’s a querulous bunch of birds in the bush outside your window filling the air with a maddeningly incessant “cheep-cheep.”  Those would be sparrows, right? Well, we call them House Sparrows but they are not really sparrows.  They belong to a family known as Weaver Finches and are not native to North America.  They were introduced to the US from Europe in the 19th Century and have ever since maligned our native sparrows by sharing the same common name.  House sparrows often gather in noisy flocks.  They nest anywhere—under your eaves, behind street signs, in boxes set aside for bluebirds.  They can dominate your birdfeeder—effectively driving away other birds.  Males have a black bib most of the year, while females are plain-breasted.  They have little in common with our native sparrows.   
      Now, suppose you are in the desert on a spring morning and there’s this nice little song that one book describes as “1-3 clear notes followed by a jangling trill.” That would be some kind of wren, right? Well, no, that is one of our native desert sparrows—the black-throated sparrow.   A closer look reveals a gray head with broad white stripes above the eye and for a moustache. Or maybe the desert songster shows a dark chest spot, chestnut cheeks, a neat, black moustache and a broad tail with white edges while serenading you with a mixed jumble of trills. That would be a lark sparrow.

Maybe you live near Tiara Rado and decided to put up a house for bluebirds and were excited because a pair were checking it out, but they got chased away by a couple of brownish, little aggressive sparrows.  Well, actually, those were the Weaver Finches (er, House Sparrows). 
Later you are walking along the river trail and a bird announces itself with a two or three high whistles followed by a trill and some short notes—that’s not a thrush or a warbler, but a song sparrow.

Driving up to Grand Mesa, you stop by a stream and there’s this “bubbly song of multiple trills.” Surely, that must be one of the warblers. No, that was a Lincoln’s sparrow.  Along with song and fox sparrows, these three fill many mountain streamsides with beautiful song throughout the short summer. 
   Have you ever been backpacking above timberline and trapped in your tent by a late summer storm? The rain and thunder never really stops, but through it all, there’s been this bird singing. Dee tu tu dee tu tu dee--a sweet, light, song amidst the gloomy weather.  During a break in the storm, you peer out and see on top of some Krumholtz, a brown-backed bird with a clear breast and beautiful snow-white stripes on it head.. By now you know, it is another native sparrow. This is a white-crowned sparrow.

 I’ve often wondered, would more people learn and, therefore, appreciate our native sparrows if they weren’t guilty by association with the House Sparrows?  That brings me to my modest proposal—let’s call the invaders something else so they don’t taint one of the most interesting and valuable groups of our native birds.  In the Midwest, many refer to them as spatzis—maybe that’s not a bad idea. {This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society.  Photos by Jackson Trappett. Send questions/comments to nkorte1@hotmail.com]To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, such as weekly bird walks, please see our website at audubongv.org and “like” us on Facebook!] 


 

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