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Confusing Brown Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

I would love it if you would write a column about LBJs. They all look the same to me and I can’t figure them out. Any help would be appreciated.

– Pat, Yarmouth, MA


You’re not alone, Pat,

Lots of people can’t figure out LBJs, but they seem easy to me. Sure, they both have the same initials but Lady Bird and Lyndon Baines Johnson really didn’t look the same. Not even close. The field marks are obvious. She had great big hair, while he had those great big ears. Big hair aside, Lady Bird was my favorite first lady. No offense to Mamie, Jackie or Michelle, but having Lady Bird in the White House was a dream come true for bird watchers. She had the best name ever. It’s certainly better than a name like Lucretia Rudolph Garfield. Lucretia Rudolph? Makes me wish I had never voted for her husband.

Wait. I’ve just reread your note and I think perhaps you are inquiring about a different kind of LBJ. My bad. In the bird world an LBJ is a small, non-descript brown bird, usually a sparrow. They are called “LBJs” (little brown jobs) because most casual birders can’t seem to figure them out, so they use LBJ as a catchall name. I understand their pain. Sometimes I think that the various sparrow species are different in name only. Nevertheless, there are a few common backyard sparrows that offer enough field marks to make identification possible…maybe.

The ubiquitous male House Sparrow is fairly easy to figure out. He has a black chin and black bib that spills down the middle of his light gray belly, looking like a fat kid eating chocolate ice cream. He also wears a partial gray cap on his head, as if he had just bought a hat that is too small for him. House Sparrows are year-round guests at feeders, where they can be aggressive towards other birds their size. The male will also try to dominate any nearby birdhouses. If you see an LBJ chirping on the roof of a birdhouse, it is very likely a male House Sparrow. The female House Sparrow is far more challenging. She is totally bland, covered in traditional brown sparrow colors. She is so generic it makes me wonder what the male ever sees in her. Probably the easiest way for beginning birders to identify the female House Sparrow is to look for a male. Since they always travel in flocks or in pairs, the boring-looking bird hanging out with the sparrow with the black bib and gray cap is probably a female House Sparrow.

Song Sparrows make things a little easier for us because the males and females look similar. These common birds can be found in both our yards and along the trails we use while walking the dog or when we are just trying to get out of the house to avoid the daily chores. Unlike the plain gray belly of the House Sparrow, the Song Sparrow is all about streaking. Brown streaks cover the underside of this bird. At one point the streaks merge in the center of the bird’s chest where they form a dark blotch. This dark, breast blotch is a key field mark, so look for it. And even though a few other species of sparrows also have a similar blotch, the Song Sparrow is the only such sparrow we regularly see in our backyards. Song Sparrows may also come to our feeders, but they aren’t as aggressive as the House Sparrows and typically don’t feed in flocks. You also aren’t likely to see a Song Sparrow senselessly chirping on one of your birdhouses. They typically sing their sweet song from an exposed tree branch, which sounds nothing like the awful chirps produced by the House Sparrow.

A less talked about backyard sparrow is the Chipping Sparrow. Even though chippers are common birds, they are often overlooked. Their lack of recognition most likely has to do with the fact that they don’t dominate feeders and are just as likely to be seen eating on the ground away from the feeder. Like many LBJs, Chipping Sparrows are brown on the back and plain on the front; however, they do have some diagnostic features. During the breeding season chippers wear a bright chestnut head-cap that is bordered by distinct white lines. The bird also has a thin line of black mascara running through the eye, giving it a rebel look. Like I said, except for the head markings, the sparrow is rather generic looking. In fact, if this bird were to wear a paper bag on its head it would look very much like many of the other sparrows…except for the fact that it is wearing a paper bag.

This last LBJ isn’t a sparrow at all. It’s a blackbird. The female Red-winged Blackbird looks like a jumbo sparrow (or a “large” brown job). The male red-wing is jet black with brilliant red wing patches, but the female looks nothing like him. She can be identified by her giant size (compared to a sparrow), a pointy, non-sparrow beak and a streaky brown body. It seems nearly impossible that she’s the same species as her handsome mate. Many women think it’s not fair that she’s the dull one, but there’s nothing wrong with hanging out with a gorgeous, flashy male. My wife doesn’t seem to mind.

These are a few of the LBJs you are likely to see in your backyard, Pat. There are many more of them to be found else where, but you’re on your own with those frustrating birds. Even the detectives from CSI would have trouble identifying some of them. I think the only person who could possibly differentiate all of the LBJs is Lady Bird herself, and I haven’t seen her around for a while.