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Look and Listen

So many common birds look alike at first sight that birders have a term for them: little brown jobbers. So an important tip is to observe more than just appearance. Ideally, the bird will sing for you and help with the identification.

Sparrows are the classic little brown jobber. Not only are there a lot of them living near us, but there is also a decent variety of species likely to show up in your yard. Depending on the season, you might find an American Tree Sparrow (winter) or a Chipping Sparrow (summer). These look-alikes at least have the decency to rarely overlap the timing of their visits. A common sparrow that is likely to breed in the bushes of your neighborhood is the appropriately names Song Sparrow. These birds do like to belt out a tune. While there is some variety between individuals, their pattern (three long low notes followed by an ascending, repetitive jumble of notes) and voice will help you identify this species. But the most common sparrow around your house is also appropriately named, the House Sparrow. If you are old enough, you might remember calling it an English Sparrow. That would be due to their origin in Europe, England in particular, where, ironically, their numbers are declining rapidly. Also ironic is that while they do love our houses, they are not truly sparrows. They are in the family of weaver finches. A close look at that large, conical bill of theirs confirms that they share that feature with finches, such as Cardinals. Song and House Sparrows are an example of how inexact our language is sometimes. Even when something is incorrect, it is likely to stick if enough people share the mistake. And try as we might, changing language is usually a slow and often unsuccessful project. Consider that the mnemonic device for remember the Song Sparrow's song is "maids, maids, maids, put on your tea kettles" - not exactly the most common experience or recently uttered phrase by anyone! Perhaps this lesson from language will help us to approach our observations, not only of nature, with a more open mind and a willingness to experience and learn new ways. Language is just one way we establish patterns and routines that help us make sense of the world around us. Let's not get stuck in forcing square pegs into our existing round holes.

Prayer: Great Creator, as we explore this life, help us to keep our labels more for jars than humans or even other-than-humans. Amen.


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