Birding: In Praise of Little Brown Jobs

Don’t worry if you can’t identify an LBJ. Just enjoy it.

If you hang out with birders, sooner or later you’ll hear someone dismiss a hard-to-identify bird as an LBJ—a little brown job. It’s a collective term for those small, relatively nondescript songbirds that usually end up being sparrows, wrens, sometimes flycatchers, and a few others (including females and immatures of a number of species.)

If you’re a beginner birder, I implore you, don’t give up on these wonderful little birds. Sure, they’re hard at first.

Immature white-crowned sparrow, looking smug.

But here’s some advice. First, if you’re having trouble distinguishing among them, give yourself time. All will become clearer with a bit of experience.

Don’t fixate on colour.

Consider the possibility that, if you’re confusing wrens with sparrows with flycatchers, you’re concentrating too much on LBJ plumage colour. It’s a natural mistake to make when you spend a lot of time learning from field guides. When you’re studying pictures in books, plumage is pretty much all you’ve got to work from. 

But while a sparrow and a wren might resemble each other on paper, they look nothing alike in the bush. Their habitats are different; their shape is different; their behaviour is different; their songs are different; and their seasonality is different. Watch them for a while. You’ll soon learn to tell them apart.

Pacific wren. Looks like a bird; acts like a mouse.

Learn what’s local.

Don’t let the big field guides daunt you. Remember that even if your book features a bewildering array of, say, thirty different sparrows, you almost certainly don’t have that many in your area on a given day. Get a local checklist or talk to a local birder. In any area, there are probably no more than a half-dozen sparrows that you’re likely to see. Find out which ones they are, circle them in your book with pencil, and don’t worry about the other ones.

Sparrows are a notoriously frustrating LBJ for beginners, and if you don’t learn to distinguish them for your first couple of years, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if you can, bring an e-guide with recordings with you: a savannah sounds a lot different from a song sparrow and a clay-coloured sounds nothing like a vesper. Songs help a lot. 

Here’s a song sparrow recording:

Song sparrow. Pointy beak, streaks (not chevrons). And that song!

LBJs: Harder in Europe

And heaven help you if you’re a beginner birder in Eurasia with the old-world warblers. I have never seen a more uniform assortment of brown, nondescript birds. My god they’re tough. But the music these dull-looking creatures can produce is out of this world, and I think that’s the key to identifying them. Once you hear a chiffchaff, you’ll be able to identify it by ear for the rest of your days.

Chiffchaff. Honestly all the old-world warblers look exactly like this. Photo by Pete Beard.

They don’t know what they’re called.

So be kind to yourself when working with the LBJs. Worry less about plumage and more about behaviour, shape, habitat, song. 

And if you’r really feeling frustrated by the LBJs, don’t even worry about identifying them. Think about it: they don’t know their name, and they couldn’t care less. So why should you? Just spend time watching the birds. Give up the colonial conceit of classifying and list-making. Watch the birds. Enjoy them. Learn their behaviour; learn what they’re eating and who they’re interacting with in their environment. 

Fox sparrow: two-toned beak, chevron-shaped spots.

Learn to love the LBJs for their own qualities.

Wrens are fascinating, from the brash, aggressive house wren down to the wee, mousey Pacific wren. 

Sparrows are spectacular songsters and doting parents. It’s not their fault their plumage is plain; appreciate them for their other virtues. 

And flycatchers are masters of the hunt—it’s just that the scale of their hunting is minuscule when compared to that of eagles and falcons. 

And don’t look down your nose at them just because they’re more uniform in colour than others. They really are some of the most beautiful little birds we have.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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