Botanists and wildflower enthusiasts have their DYCs — the difficult-to-identify sunflowers, sneezeweeds, tickseeds, ragworts, and rudbeckias collectively and humorously known as ‘darned yellow composites.’ In the same way, more than a few birders refer, somewhat ruefully, to LBBs: the ‘little brown birds’ that can be equally difficult to identify.
American sparrows certainly qualify as LBBs. This lovely savannah sparrow at least has a bit of yellow above its eye to help those interested in knowing its name. But most people aren’t aware of or interested in such distinctions, and so the sparrows — brown, ordinary, and easily overlooked — live out their lives in relative obscurity while the cardinals, hummingbirds, and orioles of the world bask in our regard.
One person who found sparrows worthy of attention was Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), one of the first African-American poets to gain national recognition. Befriended and encouraged by such luminaries as James Whitcomb Riley and Frederick Douglass, he self-published a volume of poems titled Oak and Ivy in 1893. By 1895, his poems were appearing in such major publications as The New York Times, and in 1897 he embarked on a six-month reading tour of England.
Today, Dunbar’s influence continues. A line from the third stanza of his poem “Sympathy” provided the title for Maya Angelou’s autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but caged birds weren’t his only concern. In “The Sparrow,” he addresses issues even more relevant today: species loss, human insensitivity to the natural world, and our rejection of the gifts life offers to us.
A little bird, with plumage brown,
Beside my window flutters down,
A moment chirps its little strain,
Then taps upon my window-pane
And chirps again, and hops along,
To call my notice to its song;
But I work on, nor heed its lay
‘Til, in neglect, it flies away.
So birds of peace and hope and love
Come fluttering earthward from above
To settle on life’s window-sills
And ease our load of earthly ills;
But we, in traffic’s rush and din,
Too deep engaged to let them in,
With deadened heart and sense plod on,
Nor know our loss till they are gone.
Comments always are welcome.
For more information on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s life, please click here.