The first Le Conte's sparrow of spring was sighted at Olive Park last weekend. Olive Park is the small park at the north edge of the Ohio Street filtration plant. As the only patch of green on a blighted section of the lakefront, Olive Park attracts an unusual number of migrants.
The Le Conte's sparrow is one of our more unusual migrants. We can expect to hear of several sightings in the Chicago region each spring and fall, but no individual birder can be certain of finding the species. It is not the sort of bird that inspires people to drive all night from Louisville to chase down a sighting, but if you found it on your average April outing, it would be one of the highlights of the day.
My fondness for this bird starts with its name, two words that incorporate all sorts of historical associations. It is called a sparrow, a word that dates back at least to Old High German and meant, then as now, sparrow. It is applied in Europe to the small brown finches of the genus Passer of the family Passeridae, the weaver finches.
Northern Europeans in America applied the same word to the small brown finches they saw around them who belonged to various genera in the family Emberizidae, subfamily Emberizinae. In fact, they applied it so liberally that the National Geographic guide lists 32 species called this or that kind of sparrow.
Nearly all the birds on our continent are named after similar birds--or at least birds of siimilar appearance--in England. A few North American species--whippoorwill, pewee, towhee--picked up common names based on their calls. I can't find a clear instance of a name from any Indian language. Local common names sprang up here and there, but few made it past one particular time and place.
The common names we use now are mostly artificial constructs invented by the same scientists who concocted the scientific names. With little in the way of popular tradition to guide them, they have done a rather pedestrian job. Their adjectives are either baldly descriptive (red-throated, chestnut-sided), pro forma (northern, American), or derived from the name of a fellow scientist.
"Le Conte's" is in honor of John L. Le Conte, a physician from Philadelphia. Le Conte's special scientific interest was entomology, but he was a friend of Audubon's, so he has a bird named after him.
These names have made it more difficult for poets. A North American Shelley would have had to write his ode to a Sprague's pipit rather than to a skylark. Somehow it doesn't have the same ring.
Sparrows are a problem for beginning birders. These birds hang out in the tall grass so you can rarely get a look at one, and when you do, they all look alike. Learning first-level birding gets you over this hump. First-level birding is the enumeration of field marks, the breaking down of the rather overwhelming close-up image of a free-living animal into a series of separate observations. You note the bird's small size, the short, flattened cone of the beak, the pale stripe running the length of the crown, the rich wash of orange and buff on the head and breast, the chestnut striping on the nape, and the line of brown stripes that flank the white belly.
Once you have all your facts together, you look in the book until you find a bird that matches your description, and you learn that you have seen a Le Conte's sparrow. So you tell your friends about it, including the people who have no interest in birding and wouldn't know a Le Conte's sparrow from a stegosaurus.
But if you continue birding, you start storing up impressions, details of shape, proportion, and behavior that may not be listed among the field marks in the guidebooks. The gestalt that these create becomes your main guide to identification. This is second-level birding.
Two years ago at an American Birding Association convention, I heard Kenn Kaufmann talk about sparrow identification. Kaufmann is universally acknowledged to be one of the best birders in North America. Fifteen years ago he set a North American Big Year record by sighting more species in a year than any previous birder, and did it on a total budget of $1,000, hitchhiking and sleeping on people's floors when necessary.
He was not interested in talking about eyebrow stripes or white tail feathers. He wanted to emphasize shape, and configuration, and behavior. If you see a dog, whether it is large or small, short-haired or long-haired, has a pointed muzzle or a square one, floppy ears or pointed ears--whatever its color or pattern, you know right away that it is a dog. Some essence of dogitude shines through all the caprices of taste and breeding that humans have applied to the animal.
Kaufmann's thesis was that birds supply us with similar messages. They tell us instantly who they are if we learn to break the code. Le Conte's sparrow, for example, belongs to a genus called Ammodramus, which means sand runner. The six species of Ammodramus sparrows are all flat-headed, thick-necked birds of very small size. Their tails are sparse, short, and pointed.
We see four of the six species in Chicago. Le Conte's and sharptailed pass through on migration; grasshopper and Henslow's nest here. The other two are the Baird's sparrow, a bird of the Great Plains, and the seaside sparrow, a bird of coastal marshes. A Florida race of the seaside just became extinct in the wild.
All six of these species have run into varying levels of hard luck. They are grassland birds, either upland prairie birds like the grasshopper, Baird's, and Henslow's, or sedge-meadow and marsh birds like the seaside, sharp-tailed, and Le Conte's. The fortunes of these birds have doubtless declined with the loss of their habitat. The Henslow's is on the threatened list in Illinois.
Ammodramus sparrows have raised the art of skulking to supreme levels. They prefer to stay in the grass, running along like field mice, flying only when absolutely necessary. You could compare them to field mice in their way of life, but they do eat a substantial number of insects, so maybe shrews would be a better comparison.
Whatever their way of life, the Ammodramus sparrows provide a distinctive "gis," as a genus and as individual species, to experienced observers. Gis (pronounced jizz) is current birder slang. It derives from the jargon of the British military, which used to teach aircraft spotters to note the General Impression and Shape of approaching planes.
Applied to birding, the gis approach involves a deemphasis of separate field marks in favor of the gestalt, the essence that tells us a dog is a dog and a Le Conte's sparrow is a Le Conte's sparrow regardless of the details of their appearance. And it is true that after you have been at this for a while, the differences between Ammodramus and the larger, rounder-headed Melospiza sparrows or the Zonotrichia species, which are almost like thrushes in their proportions, are instantly apparent.
I called this gestalt style second-level birding. If we wanted to add a third term to the series, we could call it master birding. The main difference between master birders and the rest of us is that the masters can apply second-level birding to hundreds or thousands of species. To them, the bird life of a continent is as instantly recognizable as the robin on your lawn.