For those of you struggling to learn bird identification, here’s an innovative system to help you name any species you encounter. That’s right. No more pesky field guides. Your avian aggravations are over. Simply locate the bird, then name it – either “big brown bird,” “little brown bird,” or “other.” It’s that simple! And once you’ve learned this method, here’s the advanced system: “big brown bird,” “little brown bird,” “other,” and …“duck.”
OK, I recognize this system won’t satisfy all of you. So for those of you seeking more detail, here are some tricks to help you differentiate the little brown birds.
First, recognize that many LBBs are streaked or speckled on the breast, belly, and sides. Many are also roughly the same size – smaller than an American robin. So focus less on plumage and size. Instead consider the bird’s shape, bill, behavior, and habitat. I’ll illustrate with four examples.
LBB #1 is somewhat elongated and sort of pot-bellied. It is relatively slim below the neck, particularly compared to LBB #2 and #3. Its bill is longish for a songbird. I photographed this bird in the woods, which is where it prefers to nest.
LBB #2’s proportions are relatively compact. It is shaped more like a football (with a tail) than LBB #1. It has a thicker neck. And its bill is conical, stubbier than LBB #1’s bill. I photographed this bird in shrubs near a clearing. You won’t find LBB #2 nesting in the woods.
LBB #3 is similar to LBB #2, with the same overall proportions and bill. Photographed on turf during spring migration, it also nests in open, scrubby areas, never in the woods. Your gut might be telling you by now that LBB #2 and #3 are sparrows.
LBB #4 is an oddball. Although this photo doesn’t capture its posture well, this bird is long and thin, particularly around the head and tail. Although it resembles a sparrow, that bill alone betrays it as a sparrow impersonator. And no photo will show one of the best clues to its identity: it has a silly walk, bobbing its head forward and back with every step. All other LBBs here hop rather than walk. It is also notable that this LBB is on grass (near a lighthouse in Maine). It nests in tundra and other open areas.
So, what have we got? LBB #1 is a hermit thrush. Its rusty tail helps distinguish it from other closely related woodland thrushes. LBB #2 is a Lincoln’s sparrow. The ultra-fine streaking on the breast and flanks is a great mark on this species; most other sparrows show wider streaks than this, if they have them at all. LBB #3 is a clay-colored sparrow. One hint on sparrow identification is to note first whether your bird is streaked or clean below. Then look at the face for distinctive markings. LBB #4 is an American pipit. No self-respecting pipit will be found in the shrubs among sparrows.
And if you’re still struggling, fear not. You are free to call them “little brown birds.” At the very least, you can be sure they are not ducks.
Bryan Pfeiffer is an author, wildlife photographer, field guide, and consulting naturalist who specializes in birds and insects. He lives on Bartlett Hill in Plainfield, Vermont.