Sparrows are an acquired taste (to watch, not to consume). Most birders prefer the pimped out warblers, tanagers, orioles, and their kind. Warblers are gaudy; sparrows are dreary.
Dull sparrows live in dull habitats. They are dull for a reason. A grassland sparrow such as the savannah dresses like grass. Brown, beige, tan, and ocher are a sparrow’s palette. Forget the vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges of a warbler for a grassland bird. Bright in a forest gets you a mate and a territory; bright in a grassland gets you eaten.
Few birds are as successful as the savannah. The sparrow breeds across North America south through the northern Great Plains. The savannah also extends south along the Rockies and the Appalachians, and a distinct population occupies the Mexican highlands. There are isolated populations (species or subspecies, depending on the biologists) in southern California and Baja California.
Where does it get its name, savannah? Alexander Wilson named the bird after his specimen from Savannah, Georgia. The scientific name, Passerculus sandwichensis, is even more confusing. Sandwichensis is normally given species that were first collected or are from the Sandwich Islands, or Hawaii.
According to an article by James Rising in Birding (November 2010), “in 1789 Johann Friedrich Gmelin gave a Latin name to the Savannah Sparrow, Emberiza sandwichensis, based on a bird John Latham had named the “Sandwich Bunting.” Unlike Gmelin, who followed the Linnean system of giving species Latinized binominal names, Latham, from England, gave the species an English name—and a rather misleading one, as “Sandwich” generally denotes the Hawaiian Islands. (The material upon which he based his description came from “Sandwich Bay” on Unalaska Island in the Aleutians.)”
Savannahs do not breed in Texas. Winter is a different matter. In winter savannahs aggregate here by the countless thousands. Nowhere is the savannah more common in Texas than in the remaining coastal grasslands like the Attwater Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (Attwater).
The Texas coastal prairies once stretched the entire length of the coast. Less than 1/10 of 1% remains. The original prairies have been sacrificed to agriculture (rice and sugarcane) and urban sprawl. Ranching keeps what remains of our coastal prairie intact, along with wildlife refuges such as Anahuac, Aransas, Attwater, and McFaddin. Lost with the prairie are prairie birds such as the Texas Henslow’s sparrow (extinct) and Attwater’s greater prairie-chicken (critically endangered).
The savannah sparrow, however, adapts well to disturbed habitats. This sparrow seems to prosper in grazed ranchland and even some agriculture. But crops such as sugarcane and rice, and urban sprawl such as between Houston and Galveston, leave little in the way of habitat for any bird. Paved prairie is birdless.
Attwater provides all that a savannah could want. During a recent afternoon I counted over 200 there without breaking a sweat. Savannahs are confiding birds, and will perch nearby on barbed wire fences and branches. Birders often call savannahs and other common birds “trash birds.” In their eyes the sparrow is cursed by being too common, while they are eager to uncover something rare or scarce. Prairie-chickens were once abundant here, too, and railroad workers complained when they were fed the bird more than one meal a day.
I celebrate the savannahs success. I hope that its adaptability keeps its among the most common birds that I see in my home prairie. In a world where much is losing, I like to see at least one bird that is a winner.