The Poets’ Birds: Sparrows

Savannah sparrow  (Passerculus sandwichensis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

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.


117 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Sparrows

  1. Dunbar was a bit of a prophet, wasn’t he? We are seeing populations of grassland birds in general spiral downwards as their habitat succumbs to suburbanization, industrial agriculture and the continued use of pesticides. Did Rachel Carson teach us nothing? And now the Trump administration wishes to renew its assault on the environment in more ways than one can imagine. We were out on Saturday looking at Savannah Sparrows singing lustily. And Bobolinks were trilling across the grassland too. How does one contemplate a world without them?

    1. While I’m sure Dunbar wasn’t thinking specifically of the kinds of environmental degradation that we’re concerned with — some of which didn’t yet exist — there’s no question that he understood the implications of a world without the joy and companionship of its creatures. Still, time and experience can add layers of meaning to a poem never recognized by the poet, and that surely has happened here.

      What a nice coincidence that you encountered savannah sparrows over the weekend. I was pleased to find this one, and to capture it in a photo. Egrets and herons are one thing; they’ll stand still. These flitty little birds are a different sort of challenge.

  2. My mom used to save bacon grease, etc from the kitchen and mix it with bird seed so in winter she could put it out for birds to feed on and we mainly had sparrows.

    1. My bird feeding’s limited because of the number of gluttonous pigeons that show up, but I do have a good number of sparrows who come for water. They’re such fun to watch, especially at bath time. I swear they line up on the balcony railing and await their turn. One will finish and fly off, and another takes its place. They’re delightfully entertaining.

  3. “With deadened heart and sense plod on, Nor know our loss till they are gone.” So true, with many things in life. As for the Sparrows, I think they’re one of the hardest to ID since there are so many varieties of them, at least 35 species in N. America according to one source, I’ve given up trying.

    1. One of the greatest days of my life (an exaggeration, but not by much) was the day I discovered the abbreviation “spp.” which basically means, “I know the genus, but not the species.” I’ve made use of that a good bit with the flowers, and may find it useful for birds some day.

      Dunbar wrote a poem pointing to our tendency to recognize loss only after the fact. Decades later, Joni Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi,” which makes the same point, while expanding the context somewhat. The fact that individuals and groups like Counting Crows continue to cover it keeps the message alive:

      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone;
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot.

    2. I’m no birder but it seems every time I ask a birding friend what that LBB is, they tell me it’s a sparrow. Thanks for that comment! They are such cheerful little creatures.

    1. That aspect of the poem caught me, too. It also brought back memories of my grandmother’s just slightly derisive references to ‘busywork’ — which in her case seemed to mean work that was done for the sake of appearance, but which wasn’t especially productive.

    1. Dunbar raises some interesting questions. For example, if we don’t have time for the occasional sparrow, what else are we taking time away from?

  4. Might modern concerns tempt us to read too much of the present into these words from over a century ago? In my reading of the poem, the bird served as a metaphor for “peace and hope and love” that could “ease our load of earthly ill” rather than as a harbinger of the loss of animal species.

    On I learned that Dunbar “published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy (1893) [when he would have been 20 or 21], at his own expense while working as an elevator operator and sold copies to his passengers to pay for the printing.” Oh, to have been a rider on that elevator.

    Unfortunately Dunbar died of tuberculosis at the age of only 33.

    1. I’ll grant you that Dunbar almost certainly wasn’t thinking of species loss in biological terms when he wrote his poem, and my own recent interest in the loss of the ivory-billed woodpecker may have predisposed me to focus in that direction. Still, a poem can expand to include new concerns, just as its truth can be restated in new ways. I think Dunbar would have appreciated Joni Mitchell’s way of putting it:

      Don’t it always seem to go
      That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til its gone;
      They paved paradise
      And put up a parking lot…

      Attention and inattention seem to me to lie at the heart of his poem. If we’re going to avoid a paved-over world, we’d best be paying attention to the tappings at the window-pane.

  5. What an interesting bit of trivia about the line and title, “I know why the caged bird sings.” As always, I enjoy the topics you write about.

    1. Here’s a different bit of trivia that amused me. If you search Google for ‘Black American poets,’ the same photo’s been used for Paul Dunbar and Jupiter Hammon (born 1711), considered the first published African American poet. It’s another reminder that the internet isn’t always right.

      The link between Angelou and Dunbar is interesting. I think he’d be pleased beyond words to know how his words were used, so many years after he wrote them.

  6. While on our Loch Ness barge holiday three years ago, our young captain Adam pointed out the flora and fauna along the way. Several small brown birds fluttered nearby. He referred to them as LBJ – Little Brown Jobbies. LBB and LBJ even have a Wikipedia entry.

    1. Three years already? My, how time does fly. I remember so many details from that trip, and how much I enjoyed your posts about it. I wonder if LBJ is a term more commonly used in Britain, while LBB is American. ‘LBJ’ could raise some unintended associations here!

      1. Speaking of associations, LBJ and that now-so-long-ago era bring to mind the three-letter initials in a song from “Hair”:

        LBJ took the IRT
        Down to 4th Street USA.
        When he got there
        What did he see?
        The youth of America on LSD.

        1. It’s odd. Even when I searched out the song on YouTube and listened to it, I didn’t remember it. I had the Broadway soundtrack on vinyl, but when I looked at the track list just now, there were others I didn’t remember. Apparently I listened to my favorites and ignored the rest.

      2. That was such a fun trip. I would easily agree to do it again. Stay tuned. Yesterday we were talking about what to plan for 2020. That will be our 40th year since we met.

    1. It helped that I saw this at the water’s edge at the refuge, where the habitat matched what I found in my book, and of course that bit of yellow helped. I was smart enough to do what you’ve mentioned doing with the pollinators from time to time — using the camera’s burst mode, and then sorting through the results later. After all, I only needed one decent photo; so what, if I tossed about forty bad ones?

  7. A lot of times habitat helps with the ID but certainly not always! In the butterfly world we have LBJ’s~little brown jobs. For me it is warblers…I had a college professor who would go out in the mornings to collect the dead birds that had collided with the college’s buildings durning the night in migration. What a heart-breaking mission! Still, he didn’t want them to have died in vain so he’d collect their little bodies and prepare study skins for us students. He particularly liked warblers, and I remember my dismay at all the little yellow bodies laid out on the table. We were to learn them all and would be tested on it. To me they all looked alike. I don’t think I fared well on that test, but I did love the class and the kindly professor.

    1. That’s funny; Jim just mentioned their trip to Loch Ness, and their tour guide, who referred to the birds there as LBJs. I suspect every discipline has its confusions, and needs such terms to help deal with them. For all I know, ‘LBB’ could refer to ‘little brown bugs’!

      I used to enjoy a blog written by a young woman who worked in an ornithology lab; her descriptions of collecting, preserving, and categorizing birds were a little hard to take at first. Still, there’s great value in such efforts, and there’s never an end to the learning.

      I think I have one photo of a warbler, but I’m not certain. And I’m still trying, after weeks of effort, to identify a bird I hear every day but never have seen. I think it has the ability to become invisible whenever it wishes.

      1. Isn’t that something, how they can do that? I swear they are throwing their voices, and yes, throwing on an invisibility cloak at will. The photo you share here of the sparrow is really nice.
        A friend of mine has a great ear. She played organ for church and still plays a monthly program at the retirement home. Anyway, we can go out in the field and she’ll tell me what birds we’re hearing when all I hear is a cacophony of sound. Amazing. Good luck with your’s ~it is always fun to put a face to a voice.

  8. I forgot to mention how pleased I am to learn of this poet. I’ll have to look him up.

      1. Oh, to be able to go back and talk with my HS English teacher. I hope they know the wonderful impact they make.

    1. I’m glad I chose his poem, since he’s new to several people. As simple as his poems sometimes seem, he provides some sharp insights.

      One detail that was mentioned above is that he worked as an elevator operator, and sold copies of his self-published work to people who rode his elevator — for a dollar a copy. I hope you did as well at the farmers’ market!

  9. There are SO many species of sparrows. I enjoy most of them except the House Sparrow. I had dozens that took the opportunity to live in my chicken house. When I would go in, they would fly and were such a problem, would eat the food that I had out for the chickens. I had to remove the food source, which was to put the food in a tube and attach it to a wall with a special opening that was off the floor and they could not perch on it to eat. An easy solution to my problem.
    Our landscape is becoming more mature and we are getting a lot of birds that we hadn’t seen. Even have quail coming into the yard, and of course I hear pheasants too.
    I always enjoy your posts!

    1. Trying to keep one creature or another away from the food can be a challenge. I was feeding a variety of birds until the pigeons showed up and began vacuuming up the seed. That had to end; they could go through pounds of seed a day. I found that peanuts in the shell still attract bluejays and cardinals, so that’s what I put out, along with water. Now I have fewer birds, but more entertainment. Watching frustrated pigeons try to open a peanut shell is amusing.

      People who encourage ‘wildscaping’ instead of traditional landscaping often say, “If you plant it, they will come.” It’s true. More and varied plants, and more native plants, do attract the birds. We always had pheasants in our corn fields, but quail would be a real treat.

      I’m so glad you enjoy what I post. Now, get out there and enjoy the sunshine I see forecast for you for the rest of the week. I hope things begin to dry up — at least a bit.

      1. I have my grandson for 2 weeks!! We are headed out early for a run (a walk for me and Wylie!!). Lots of mowing when it dries up a bit.
        Have a wonderful day!

  10. The little sparrow is often overlooked… but has its place in the scheme of things. Thanks for another great post.

    1. Small doesn’t mean unimportant, as anyone who’s been in contact with a cactus learns pretty quickly.
      It’s actually a good bit of fun to figure out how creatures like the sparrow fit into the grand scheme of things. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Brig.

  11. I didn’t know the source of the title of Angelou’s book. Title sources always are interesting. I enjoy even the sparrows and leave stale bread crumbs for birds in the small park next to our house. Sometimes seagulls get there first. I always learn something new from your post.

    1. There’s an art to choosing a good title, and Angelou chose well. I think Dunbar would be pleased.

      I smiled at your mention of the gulls. People here try to feed the ducks from time to time, and it takes the gulls about ten seconds to figure out what’s happening and show up in force. Their ability to pluck even a small bit from the air is marvelous, and great entertainment for the children.

  12. I rather enjoy the sparrows. They’re not “in your face” like grackles, and they’re easier to watch than hummingbirds. Beautiful poem — sad we’re so busy rushing around that, too often, we fail to notice what’s important.

    1. Despite their demanding (and loud) presence, I do enjoy grackles, but you’re right that the sparrows are entertaining in a gentler way. Even when they aren’t immediately visible, I like hearing their conversations in the bushes; they seem to talk to one another more than some species.

      It’s especially sad that children are being over-scheduled and rushed around, with never a moment to themselves. Our early years included time to watch the clouds or catch a grasshopper, and those habits of observation formed early tended to linger. Whatever the advantages they offer, observing the screens of a computer or smart phone just isn’t the same.

    1. Yes, indeed. I started that second blog, Lagniappe, about a year and a half ago. This one’s mostly writing, and that one’s mostly photography, although the division isn’t necessarily sharp. I cross-linked them so people can move from one to the other if they choose.

  13. Although yours beats me for eloquence, a similar discussion is happening on my blog regarding New Zealand fur seals. Before I read down to your reference to “Big Yellow Taxi,” the tune was running through my mind. Or, with reference to the blues, “you don’t miss your water till your well runs dry.”

    1. Of course, it’s also true that some people are willing to accept those three little birds of peace, hope, and love that come fluttering down into their lives, listening to and incorporating their message. They’re a great antidote to the gloom-and-doomers.

      1. I will always accept the three little birds. And I will always accept Marley’s song. I grew up surrounded by sparrows and there will always be a place in my heart for them.

  14. I love the birds. At the coast, we had a very limited number outside of the flyways but in our new place, there are all kinds of species that I haven’t seen in years. So nice.

    1. There’s no question that you’ll see more, and different, species now. I rarely see a chickadee, titmouse, or woodpecker, but just a few miles away, where there are fewer palms and more oaks and pines, things are different. Still, give the sparrows this: they’re adaptable. I suppose the species vary from place to place, but ‘sparrows’ are willing to make a home nearly anywhere.

    1. I suspect that most of my nearby sparrows are house sparrows, an introduced species that can be a little pesty. What I didn’t know until I started reading about sparrows generally is that the house sparrow’s the one that enjoys taking dust baths; it’s one way to identify them.

      But you’re right about the songs of the various species, and the comfortable chittering that goes on when they’re around. Even in winter, when most other birds are silent, we can count on the sparrows to announce their presence.

  15. I have to admit that after years of putting out birdseed sparrows, at least the house variety, are not among my favorites. It’s like what having a house full of teenagers must be like. Ravenous little chirpers. Starlings too.
    Nice look at the bird’s plumage. Did it give the tail a shake for you?

    Dunbar’s understanding of human nature being too involved in being busy rather than appreciating what Nature has in store for us is a lesson for us all. Thanks for sharing his words and raising awareness of his words..

    1. I’d be happy for my sparrows to have a chance at birdseed. My problem’s the pigeons; those wingèd appetites would eat five pounds of seed a day — or more. I was glad to get the photo I did, even though I wished his whole beak had been visible. I wished for a nice view of that spotted breast, too, but sometimes we take what we can get.

      One of the worst bits of popular advice to ever come down the pike was the suggestion some years ago that we can “have it all.” As someone finally pointed out, maybe we can have it all, but we can’t have it all at the same time. The attempt to cram more and more into a twenty-four hour day doesn’t leave much time for sparrow watching.

      1. The sparrows and others have a similar foe here in the mourning doves. Despite the name, they tend to be bullies. I just had a similar response to a friend on Facebook regarding my sunrise shot with the branch hanging low. I wish it wasn’t there but made the image anyway. At least I can go back with boots and get under the branch to eliminate it. Often there are no second chances with wildlife.

        Personally, I don’t want it all. I don’t believe we were meant for that and in reality it is hard to appreciate it all. Lacking makes attaining the sweeter. Although I find the phrase rather hackneyed at this point, it does one good to “stop and smell the roses”. Or the milkweed which I prefer.

        1. The doves? Bullies? I guess I’ve heard other people say that, but I’ve never observed it. Interesting. Maybe the bluejays and grackles keep my doves in line.

          I smiled at your comment about second chances. Some time ago, I found my first patch of fringed puccoon. It was a couple of hours away, but when I saw my photos and wasn’t happy with them, I thought, “Well, it’s only a couple of hours away.” I turned around the next day and drove back down for a reshoot, and discovered the mowers had gotten there first. You just never know. (Eventually, I went back for a third time, and the puccoons had recovered. You can’t keep a good plant down.)

          1. Oh, bummer. The meadow where I most often find my grass pinks also gets mowed. If it wasn’t the place would quickly fill with shrubs and trees. But it gets mowed in the autumn after most everything has matured. Also they have some sort of a random pattern, sometimes cutting the entirety and others just paths. In this case the mowing is a good thing as otherwise all the low plants would eventually die off as first growth or go into a decades long repose while second growth would take over.

  16. Sparrows are my favourite. They are kind of cosy companions. They seem to look at me and know I will give them my flakes of the crusty meat-pie base. They are easy to make friends with.

    1. That’s it, exactly: cozy companions. They’ll flutter away when a door opens or someone suddenly appears, but they don’t seem really afraid of humans, and often appear to enjoy just being around. Of course, that flake of pastry or bit of cracker never hurts. They know how the meat-pie crumbles!

  17. Wow, that is such a beautiful and poignant poem. Thanks so much for introducing us to Dunbar. If this sentiment was true then, how much more now. Yikes. Also, the photograph is glorious!

    1. It’s funny — I see more sparrows than nearly any other bird, but it’s taken me much longer than usual to get a photo of one. They’re not only quite active, they seem to prefer hanging out in cover designed to confound even the most dedicated photographer. A big, fat, long lens would make things easier, but patience is cheaper.

      Dunbar’s talent appeared early. The only African American in his high school class, he became class president and class poet. It’s funny now to think that he and I shared that honor — class poet — and to ponder what might have happened had I received the kind of encouragement that came to him. I was actively discouraged by people who believed that poetry was frivolous, impractical, and of no use for financial gain. In my teen years, I didn’t have the personality I have today, and wasn’t able to fend them off!

    1. They are social creatures, aren’t they? They clearly enjoy being in flocks, and they don’t seem to mind the presence of humans, either. It’s been pouring rain here all morning, and yet there they are: hidden away in the bushes, but chattering among themselves as though the day couldn’t be more pleasant.

  18. We used to see sparrows here all the time, but now I hardly ever see any. The grackles have taken over like the mafia. I see robins every now and again, and the other day I spotted a sassy young mockingbird. I always felt that those yellow birds in the Peanuts cartoons, (Woodstock and his ilk) who talked in exclamation points were sparrows. That’s exactly the way I would have translated their energetic chipping. A group of them would be an exclamation of sparrows.

    1. I envy you your robins. It’s been two years since I’ve seen one here; we just don’t have the kind of environment that entices them. We’re awash in mockingbirds, though, and the grackles are being driven to distraction by their babies: nearly full-sized, and still begging for food even though some clearly are able to feed themselves.

      I’ve never thought of those yellow birds in the Peanuts series as anything but — well, those yellow birds. But now that I think of it, the personality of the sparrow does shine through: pleasant, easy-going, humorous. “Exclamation of sparrows” is just right.

    1. Thank you, Derrick. It’s a lovely native sparrow, although more limited in range than our house (or English) sparrow that arrived here from your shores. I’ve read that the house sparrow is declining in England, while it’s increasing here. If you’d like, we could spare a few.

      1. There are those who would appreciate your kind offer, Linda, because the species is much in decline. We, however, have at least two regular nests on our house. Sometimes each has two broods.

    1. Those differences among the sparrows are delightful, if subtle: hence, the difficulty in identifying many of them. But the songs and the continual chipping never fail to cheer. I’m with you in loving them; rain or shine, they’re out and about their birdie business, bringing smiles.

  19. What a sweet photograph! We enjoy many sparrow species here in Southwest Oklahoma. I am only able to identify about seven types without the aid of an online source – and that with the help of my photographs. It’s almost impossible for me to remember details since so many features are similar. For many years I took part in a winter bird survey for the state, and I found that to be the biggest help in learning to identify various sparrows (and other birds too).

    Dunbar’s poem resonates with today’s busy life. I am thankful to live where I do and have the ability to be outdoors so much. It’s a lovely and peaceable thing to get sidetracked watching a little sparrow go about its business, and give pause to my own busy (self-designed) schedule.

    1. Being able to identify seven seems impressive to me, especially since it takes time to sort out the details. I remember how difficult it was for me to distinguish different goldenrods in the beginning, or sunflowers. Learning about leaves, stems, and bloom time had to happen before I could do it, and I still can get confused. In the same way, when a birder says, “See? That bill is curved differently than this bill,” I can look and look, and still not see what’s being pointed out to me. Then, later, I take a casual look, and wonder why I couldn’t spot the difference before.

      Of course, knowing which sparrow is singing isn’t necessary to enjoy the song. We’ve talked before about how glad we are to have so much outdoor time, and at least some freedom to enjoy it. There are times I think the sparrows are enjoying the day as much as we are.

    1. That’s so true. Poets like Dunbar remind us that an appreciation of nature is found in every society and culture. Some individuals may be more sensitive to its beauties and some less, but whenever a bird sings, someone will listen, and someone may respond with words.

  20. I always love your posts…so educational as well as entertaining. This one struck a chord with me when you called them LBB’s (little brown birds) brown, ordinary, and easily overlooked. It reminds me of how Jesus said he uses the humble, small, unimportant, of the world for His work. I may do a post sometime in the future about Sparrows and God’s work. Thank you for the inspiration.

  21. We use the phrase LBJs: Little Brown Jobbies. I like the poem. I thought of the Robins, Bluebirds, and Doves as the poets’ birds. My favorite sparrows are the white-crowned and white-throated.

    1. And larks! Don’t forget those larks so beloved of English poets. They’re right up there with the bluebirds and doves.

      Because certain birds seem so distinctly non-poetic (cormorants, osprey, vultures. and now the sparrows) it’s made this on-going series a good bit of fun. Every dog may have its day, but it does seem that every bird has its poet, too.

  22. Those sweet brown sparrows are never overlooked by me (even though I can’t claim to be able to distinguish the different types!). Colorful birds are like crazy (for good or for bad) guests, but the LBBs are like family.

    1. What a wonderful distinction — and so on point. The colorful birds will dance on the table, but the LBBs will show up in the morning and pick up the mess. They’re easy to be with, and their very ordinariness is part of their charm. I get to see their babies more than other species, as the parents will bring them up to the birdbath and show them how much fun it can be to splash around. It’s fun for them, and fun for me.

  23. I have the worst time with LBBs! I swear, I call every little brown bird with that kind of beak a sparrow. I don’t know if they are house sparrows or American sparrows or brothers from another mother. As long as they still fly, I’m good!

    1. “As long as they still fly, I’m good!” — exactly. And twitter, too. Long before we lost that perfectly good word to a social media platform, the twittering of sparrows in the shrubbery made me smile, and it still does. Even when I can’t see them, knowing by their sound that they’re around is somehow comforting, in the way that peanut butter and jelly, or sheets fresh from the line, are comforting.

  24. Ancient relatives in E. TX seemed to call a multitude of little brown birds “wrens” – which they weren’t (Barn wrens, maybe in some previous homestead with the name traveling along to become habit?), but that’s what they got – or the little brown singers were “tweety-birds”
    Farmers may not know the names, but they do enjoy the birds – and most made sure there was food in bitter weather. It’s been nice to see some “new” small framers return to the ways of old ones who were aware of connections and needs of the land. Sustainable really is mandatory but for long wasn’t rewarded or economically feasible.
    That’s a great picture – have to admit I never noticed the accent yellow.
    The birds sure were singing after all the rain both early and late a couple of days. (thrilled mosquito dinner is about ready? HaHa)

    1. It took me a while to remember what the old folks called sparrows when I was growing up, and I finally got it: “spatsies.” Or maybe “spatzies.” When I did a search for the word, the pages that appeared seemed to be Dutch, and I just found that spatz is German for sparrow. Now I wonder if there’s a connection between Dutch and German, because we lived in an area with whole towns filled with Dutch immigrants. In any event, I love the word. Of course, now I want some spaetzle, thanks to Google’s insistence on serving up those entries.

      I wish more people understood that farmers, hunters, and anglers are among some of the most dedicated conservationists in the country, as well as being knowledgeable ecologists. It seems like all of the publicity about the “ag industry” has left people believing there aren’t any more family farms. One of my Kansas readers posted a neat photo of some signs an FFA group put up. We need more like them.

        1. Now I have to figure out where that specific epithet came from. Sandwichensis either refers to the Earl of Sandwich, that region of England, or the sparrows love of PB&J on whole wheat.

  25. I knew them as LBJ’s – Little Brown Jobs” – that’s what they were called back in the 70’s around New York and New Jersey. Go figure. :-) Ever since reading, many years ago, about someone who researched Song Sparrow songs, I’ve paid special attention to them. The variety of song in that species is really amazing. Sometimes I hear real oddball songs, e.g. a very short one, but it’s always obvious it’s a Song Sparrow. Your Savannah sparrow is a good representative for the difficulty in identifying many of them. Especially when they’re flitting around a field somewhere, it can be really hard!

    1. I still remember the day someone suggested to me that, for my purposes, being able to identify down to the genus level was perfectly acceptable. I’m always delighted when I can carry it a little further, but when it comes to plants, DNA analysis and such seem to have made taxonomic changes much more frequent. If I come across one, or if I can spot a variety, great. If not? So what? It’s the same with birds. I’ll try for an ID, but I’m more than willing to say, “I don’t know what this is.” It’s a bit of a cavalier attitude, I suppose, but I’d rather share my bits of beauty than keep them in the files for lack of an absolute identification.

      I’m glad you mentioned the song sparrow. I went to the Macaulay Library and listened to some of their songs, and now I’m convinced I’ve confused them with another sort of bird. I’ll have to listen more closely.

    1. Nikkipolani, I’m always amazed when I get a clear shot of a bird. The herons and such are easier, since they tend to stand around while waiting for dinner to swim by, but these seem always to be on the move, following prey that’s equally active. This time, I was the lucky one!

  26. I have always loved sparrows and Dunbar’s poem speaks so well of how this little bird fills our void in a most humble way. I really enjoyed it.

    1. We’re wont to speak of comfort foods, but I think there are “comfort birds,” too, and I’d certainly count the sparrows among them. They’re already up and about, chirping to one another, and it’s a dependable morning sound. Listening to them is a far better way to begin the day than tuning in to the morning news-that-isn’t. I can check the headlines while listening to the sparrows, and it’s a far better thing that letting the broadcasters drown out the birds.

  27. I love this poem & its call to notice the natural world before it disappears. I’m definitely guilty of sitting in my car & paying scant attention to the world around me. I have to be purposefully mindful – which I’m often not.

    At our house we love LBBs & delight to see them at the feeder outside our living room window. Although sometimes the LBB is actually a LBS (little brown squirrel).

    1. Never mind the natural world. So many people I see these days aren’t paying attention to the world in general, except for the world contained in the screen in front of them. One of the best things about the natural world is that the appearance of its beauties (and oddities, and slightly unnerving realities) is that they’re not served up by algorithm.

      I knew before I read “squirrel” that you were going to mention those critters, but I read “LBS” as “little brown scavengers”!

  28. I had not heard of Dunbar, so I looked him up on Wikipedia. He was prolific for one so young and took full advantage of the limited number of years he was given…books, poems, plays, readings…that are still relevant and inspiring. As one person said, he was a prophet, prescient about what was to come. Thanks for sharing his poem.

    1. I’ve been surprised by the number of readers who hadn’t heard of Dunbar. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, at least in Iowa, his work was part of our curriculum. Today, people think the mid-century midwest was akin to the Dark Ages, but it wasn’t so. I’m glad I decided to feature him.

      I do appreciate his work more now than I did then, and I had to smile at his reference to our human busyness. Apparently we’re not the first humans to suffer that malady.

  29. To DYCs and LBBs, you can add LBMs (little brown mushrooms, such as Mycena spp.). I call the hard to identify brown skipper butterflies LBBs (little brown butterflies). One group of summer skippers is called the “the whiches”, as in which one is it (dun skipper, northern/southern broken dash, little glassywing). They are in different genera, so the indifferent can just say skipper spp.
    Thanks for introducing me to Dunbar. I can’t imagine life without hearing or listening to birds, though busy lives and minds sometimes need to tune in to the life around us.

    1. Oh, mushrooms. That’s a whole other world that leaves me befuddled. Some are easy, like the morels or puffballs. Otherwise, they’re all WITs to me (“What IS that?) “The Whiches” serves the same purpose; everyone has their own way of dealing with the uncertainties out there.

      Bird songs and calls can be as reassuring as they are beautiful. I still remember hearing the first mockingbird after Hurricane Ike. In fact, a friend just mentioned that she’d laminated an email I sent to her when I heard that first bird. You don’t realize how much a part of our world they are until they aren’t there — and that storm swept all our birds away for quite a period, along with insects and fish. Once they returned, we knew we’d be all right, too.

      1. I love listening to bird.calls – especially if I hear, or think I hear, a call and response. It’s engaging to listen in on the conversation.

    1. It’s a good reminder to be attentive to all the gifts that surround us, lest the time for enjoyment pass us by. So much frantic activity these days isn’t nearly so productive as a few moments spent attending to a little bird — as you so well know. And by the way — are there pea babies yet?

  30. Sparrows aren’t the most eye catching birds – and that’s why they are what you call LBB’s – but they are still beautiful in their quiet and muted way. The poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar in many ways sums this up in a touching way.

    1. Sometimes, keeping a low profile is the better course, and what the sparrows lack in flamboyant coloring and size, they make up for with cheerfulness and a high degree of sociability. The times I most notice them are when they go silent and I realize their chirping has stopped — which is precisely Dunbar’s point.

  31. Our sparrows are so funny. If the food runs out of the feeder, which is 3 feet from our window, they land on the window screen and turn their head sideways so their eye is peering in at us. Whenever they do this we say “Time to feed the birds!”

    1. They do get used to their routine, don’t they? Sparrows seem quite comfortable around people, anyway, and I can imagine how amusing their little ‘reminder visits’ must be. Between your glorious flower gardens and your birds, you must feel like you have a little bit of paradise around you!

  32. Between today’s April snow squalls, our folks of sorrows dart out of the evergreen trees and bushes, perch for moments on low-landing branches, then dive for cover when the next wind gust brings a dose of snow. They’re little bundles of energy, have to be, I guess. Hardy, too. Our neighbor has a feeder, and those little tykes are superb about daring in and grabbing what they need.
    Sparrows provide context for the occasional bluejay, cardinal and mourning dove in our yard.

      1. Actually, ‘folks of sorrows’ fits the day just as well as ‘flocks of sparrows.’ Now I’m remembering another song that would fit your collection rather well: “Man of Constant Sorrow.” I can’t quite do the Ralph Stanley version, and the film score’s a little slicked up for me, but this one’s pretty good.

        1. I have that soundtrack, purchased as soon as I could after the film came out. Stanley supplied the roughness the film sorely needed.
          I have the squirrelly habit of posting without checking closely. I’m just lazy, I guess. But it can lead to some (autofill wanted “twosome,” dang it) interesting word choices.

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