Plain Janes – but still cool

Please treat all images as copyrighted and ask permission before using for any purpose. Thanks, DEClapp

Many birds are glorious; bright, colorful, showy, resplendent, overdone, vibrant, exotic and so on. Some adorn themselves only in the breeding season; usually males to impress the ladies. Other are superb athletes; diving, swimming, rolling, zipping, or building great bowers. But not all of them stand out in a way that we might adulate or appreciate. Some are rather plain looking and carry on a very comfortable middle-level life. They are assuredly not boring to each other I would imagine, but to the average human observer they seem to be more couch-potato than rock star. In previous posts I have shown the Indigo Bunting (in the fall) and House Wren, and a few other birds that are nice enough on their own, but not showy – here are a few more.

The bird in the lead image (up above) is a sparrow – perhaps you guessed that. It is a tightly marked Lincoln’s Sparrow with it head tucked into a hydro-seeded patch of earth. It is noticeably different from the Song Sparrow shown in an image below. Lincoln’s Sparrows nest in the Boreal Forest of Canada but in clearings with leafy patches in the forest usually adjacent to bogs or ponds. Learning and appreciating the dull and inconspicuous birds is both challenging and tedious – but worth it in so many areas. A comparison of Lincoln’s and Song Sparrow might be done with a fabric reference; the Song has a burlap sort of weave and the Lincoln’s is more like a tightly woven bed sheet sort of fabric.

Let’s start with these birds and then later maybe we can apply what we have grown to appreciate to our fellow humans; we are not all showy, flashy, tightly-woven, or memorable (at least at first glance). Here are few of those sorts of birds with a bit of a narration as to why despite their average looks and life style, they may exceed our first impressions.

Our impression of warblers, here in the eastern part of North America, is of bright birds flitting in the nascent foliage of a mid-May morning. A bit of buzzing and trilling perhaps but more reminiscent of a butterfly invasion than an avian incursion. But all warblers are not up in the trees and all are not yellow and showy. There are many, like this Palm Warbler, that are a bit drab and perhaps even blah. Palm Warbler is a bad name as the bird is rarely in palms and spends all
of its breeding life in southern Canada and only a fraction in the southeast corner of the US. Even in winter it really isn’t a “palm” sort of bird. As a migrant is passes through the eastern two-thirds of the USA both heading north and returning south. The bird above and the bird below are both Palms.
There are two very distinct populations of Palm Warblers’ The “western palm” is shown in these two images and breeds from Hudson Bay west and up through northern Canada. The “yellow” palm (maybe it should be called eastern palm) is very yellow underneath and breeds east of Hudson Bay. The western group migrates east and then south in many cases and here in New England (east) we get mostly western Palm Warbler. The plainer looking western palm still has bright yellow under-tail covert feathers which can be seen in both pictures. The easiest place to see these birds in migration is alongside agricultural fields where weeds have grown up. The seeds from annual weeds feed many millions of birds and almost all of the Palm Warblers as they migrate. They spend their winters in southern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia as well as Florida and the eastern parts of the Carolinas and Virginia. As they are pretty plain looking the easiest characteristic to notice when checking out a Palm Warbler is that it wags its tail both vigorously and continually.
Sparrows are often mostly brown and sport lots of stripes. This is the most common of our sparrows, the Song Sparrow. All the USA and all of the lower half of Canada have Song Sparrows from coast to coast. There are several populations with modest specific characteristics but generally they are boldly striped above and below with an irregular spot on the chest. Hedgerows, weedy patches, yards, and all sorts of bushy and brushy areas are used by the Song Sparrow. It is widespread and common. If you learn this sparrow you will have a central landmark in the sparrow terrain from which to describe and compare other cryptic brownish and striped birds.
Oops, this may look like a sparrow but it goes back to the not-all-warblers-are-colorful comment. This is a weird little warbler; common (in the oak forests of the NE) and noisy – the Ovenbird. It looks like a small thrush perhaps. There are bold stripes, an eye ring, and the habit of walking on the forest floor or on a horizontal tree branch. The older bird books depict the call as “teacher, teacher”. But that never sat well with me as I thought that was backwards and placed the emphasis on the wrong syllable. Now I am vindicated, as David Sibley says in his field guide, the “song is an explosive two-syllable phrase increasing in volume “chertee, chertee, cherTEE, CHERTEE” and so on. Ah, the sweet feeling of vindication. Ovenbirds build a smallish inconspicuous domed nest on the forest floor and raise the clutch close to the earth. When seen well, and that’s easy especially in the spring, this rather plain brown bird has some colorful attributes and a nice contrasting pattern. It’s worth taking the time to track one down.
The great Boreal Forest of the northern hemisphere sweeps around the globe encompassing most of Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. It consists of more than 6.5 million square miles of trees; the cone trees like fir, spruce, larch, and pine, and the leafy trees like the poplar, birch, and alder. Boreal forests are a very recent habitat; they are all post-glaciation, perhaps 10-15,000 years old. As much of this habitat is in Russia it is often called taiga, the Russian name for this snow forest.
Very similar habitat occurs at high elevations through mountain chains well to the south. These elevation-restricted areas are often referred to as “alpine” zones or “alpine” habitat. We have them in the Appalachian Mountains and throughout the Rockies and Sierra Nevada in the west.
The bird life of the forest is made up of ravens, finches, grosbeaks, warblers (breeding) and jays.
North of the forest, more toward the North Pole, is the tundra where there are lots of “sparrow and finch” types of birds. Here in Massachusetts we wonder each fall if the Canadian birds will sweep south and spend part of the winter with us. Many of these birds, perhaps most, are capable of surviving through the winter by gleaning nutrition from the needles and cones of the forest. But some years, for a variety of reason, they will head south.
Well this year, 2020 in early October we have had a huge invasion of the tiny, but hardy, Pine Siskin. They are here in busy flighty flocks. There can be 50 or more at our feeders each day – I figure they are eating about $6 worth of seed per day. Now we are wondering whether the Common Redpolls and Evening Grosbeaks – will they appear as well? Maybe the great predator of the north, the huge and impressive, Gyrfalcon might stop in somewhere nearby. This could be a winter of northern species for us – but maybe not…..we won’t know for a few months.
As far as plain and pedestrian goes can anything beat the dove/pigeon group? We dismiss the Mourning Dove as common and unimpressive and the urban Rock Pigeon as little more than a rat with feathers that seems to like bridges and buildings. But this group is worldwide and very well adapted. The bird above is a Mourning Dove. It is at best a subtle bird with a long tail and small rounded head. It is a bird of yards, grasslands, gardens and farm lands, and spends a good deal of time sitting on wires. They nest from late winter into early fall on very flimsy nests made of an unlikely small number of criss-crossed sticks. The “cooing” noise can be confused with the hooting of an owl – but it is a day time noise and the bird is often quite visible.

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