Birder Jargon Project: Along came a Sparrow
Tis the season, friends. Warbler migration lingered longer than normal this year, but as the proportion of Yellow-rumped Warblers begins to climb exponentially with each passing day, we begint o make the switch in our heads. We spend less time in the willow thickets and forest edges and more in the wet meadows and brushpiles. We turn off our warbler eyes and re-affix our sparrow senses. It usually takes a couple weeks to get completely acclimated, but those brown streaky denizens of field and hedgerows make up the third major wave of migrants down the eastern half of the continent. This past weekend at my local patch I noted, with some passing disconcertion, the very first White-throated Sparrows of the year. These big bodied Zonotrichias are not the first sparrows to arrive in my neck of the woods, nor are they the final nail in fall’s coffin, either. But you can see the end from here. So we might as well get ready for them.
The most familiar sparrows, in this part of the continent, come from three genii: Melospiza, Spizella, and Zonotrichia. Familiarity, of course, breeds nicknames, and we birders are all to ready to through around contractions and reductions. The big White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows don’t change much, but together the big-bodied birds go by Zonos, useful for a quick assessment of the juvenile birds of the two species, which can look similar when diving into a brush pile.
Spizella is a genus of short-winged, long-tailed birds that prefer semi-open areas. Most species are simply called their common names – Field and Tree are short enough – but what birder hasn’t referred to the cheeky Spizella passerina as a Chippy, a name as appropriately cute as the little bird itself.
The three sparrows of the genus Melospiza, uniformly long-tailed and streaky, can pose no shortage of identification difficulties for beginning and experienced birder alike. The genus is grounded by the wide-ranging and common Song Sparrow, the bird I call Songer as it flushes, chrrrping, from hedgerows dragging its massive tail behind it like a Honda Civic pulling a flat-bed trailer. Its more secretive co-geners also get the treatment, with the wet meadowed Swamp Sparrow often as not becoming Swampy, and the rarer, more secretive Lincoln’s Sparrow known simply as Link (not the venerable Pigs in Space captain) and far too uncommonly used here in North Carolina.
I should point out, as if it’s not clear enough, that most of these abbreviations and nicknames of birds are my own. You might be correct, then, in assuming that birding with yours truly is a decidedly irregular affair. Heck, you may be absolutely right. But I find these sorts of abbrieviatory nicknames for birds, particularly how they differ among birders in different communities and regions, to be sort of fascinating. So, knowing that these shared here are pretty subjective names, how do you name your sparrows?