I remember sitting in a revival meeting at church as a youngster, when this especially large woman with a full, deep and rich voice belted out this song, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me“. By the end, and after multiple verses, she had the congregation nearly in tears, grateful that our Lord is watching out for each of us. But I was thinking about that insignificant sparrow, apparently the songwriter’s example of the lowest life form–if God watches that little brown bird, he surely keeps an eye on Homo sapiens. The LBJ’s (little brown jobs) took it on the chin again; they just don’t get any respect.
One of the ways you can identify a birder as an expert, is the way they handle the sparrows. At first glance they all look alike and the novice birder feels overwhelmed in differentiating their subtle color patterns, shapes, sizes, tail length, etc. When you are birding and come across another birder, they often ask, “have you seen anything interesting?”, meaning a hawk, eagle, colorful warbler, etc. There is one older, gentleman birder I often meet on the trail and he asks, “have you seen any sparrows?” He is the local sparrow expert and relishes these ID challenges.
The English colonists to the New World, used to seeing their House and Eurasian Tree Sparrows of the family Passeridae, started calling the New World LBJ’s “sparrows”, despite obvious differences. Our sparrows are part of the family Emberizidae, and clearly distinct from the finch-like birds of Europe.
Sparrow ID is tough not just because of the bird similarities but also due to their secretive behavior, diving into the shrubs and giving the frustrated birder only a fleeting glimpse. Thats why the sparrow experts say to initially look at behavior, size, shape, tail length, habitat, etc. before the field marks. Luckily during breeding season they tend to perch in the open and sing, creating photographic opportunities but in other seasons its more difficult to get a good look or photo.
My first sighting of a Seaside Sparrow was near Port Mahon on the Delaware shore. A recent article said that was the place to find this bird, actually giving directions to a specific pot-holed road and marsh. I took the 90 minute drive not really expecting much, and my doubts were initially confirmed when I parked the truck and walked the road, swatting mosquitoes. But before leaving I tried using the I-Bird Pro recording–it worked like a charm with birds rising out of the marsh like spontaneous generation. Within seconds several curious birds were posing for great shots, right along the road. http://www.ibird.com
An expert suggested that sparrow ID is “easier” if you learn one or two common birds in your area first, and compare new birds to them. For me that would be the Song Sparrow with its streaky feathers, long tail, and breast spot, and the smaller Chipping Sparrow with its plain breast and rufous crown. Both also have distinct songs, usually heard before the birds are seen. I would also add that photo-birding is a big help here. Take a lot of pictures, even if they’re not art shots, and make the ID from your guide books in the comfort of home.
A trip to the Arizona desert yielded the Brewer’s and Black-throated Sparrows for me but the latter’s picture did not make the cut for this post. The White-crowned also seem much more abundant in the West.
Back to the song for those interested. It was written in 1905, with music by Charles Gabriel and lyrics by Civilla Martin. It has become a staple of American gospel music since then and has been recorded by multiple artists including Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Marvin Gaye, and even Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston’s rendition was released after her untimely death in 2012. Here’s one of the stanzas and the refrain:
“Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
And resting on his goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Refrain: I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free,
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.