Recently I learned another western Pennsylvania colloquialism when friends, both distant natives of that region, were visiting with us. We were sitting at the kitchen table with morning coffee, watching the activity at the bird feeders. John, a retired forester, knew most of the birds which paid the feeders a visit. I was refilling the coffee mugs when he said, “Ah, look at the different sputzies.”
“Sputzies?” I asked in mid-pour as I looked at the feeders.
“That’s what we called nondescript birds - that’s just a sputzie.”
There were three “sputzies” at the feeder, all females: House Finch, Purple Finch, and Rose-breasted Grosbeak. They are distinguishable from one another, but the term “nondescript” is still very appropriate. Each in its own way is streaked brown and white; there is nothing about any of them which draws particular attention.
When birders ooh and aah at some songbird, they are usually oohing and aahing at a male bird. The brilliant red bib of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak is augmented by the flashy black and white of tail and wings, and often earns the bird a place among a birder’s “favorite birds.” The contrast between the conspicuousness of the male and the drabness of the female could hardly be greater. But it is not unusual.
The male Purple Finch is a rich red wine color; the female is a drab brown bird. The male Indigo Bunting is brilliant blue; the female is a drab brown bird with just flecks of blue in her coloring. Black-throated Blue Warbler describes the male; the female is a small nondescript brown bird. The Common Yellowthroat has a bright yellow breast and a prominent black mask highlighted with white; the female is a plain olive drab and dull yellow bird. The Red-winged Blackbird has his flashy red epaulets; the female is dark, streaked, and drab.
The striking difference between the sexes of such birds (called sexual dimorphism) probably serves a number of purposes. The color and song of the male is a sexual attractant; it aids in establishing and maintaining his breeding territory against rivals. It may also be a defensive tactic against predators; he draws attention to himself and away from the female and the nest, both of which remain inconspicuous and hidden.
Of course, not all species adopt these breeding techniques. Sometimes the females are simply duller looking than the males: for example, Evening Grosbeak, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, and many warblers. Often there is no distinguishable difference between the sexes: for example, chickadees, titmice, thrushes, crows, and jays. The birds know the difference, and that’s all that matters.
And, not all sputzies are females. Sparrows are almost all sputzies. Distinguishing one species of sparrow from another often requires careful observation. Song Sparrows are common, sometimes abundant around my bird feeders and I often pay little attention to them. A few days ago I was watching the Song Sparrows more closely than usual, and noticed that one did not have the characteristic “stick pin” on its breast. It was a Savannah Sparrow.
White-crowned Sparrows are migrant visitors to the bird feeder and quite distinctive with their black and white streaked head. But, the juvenile White-crowned Sparrow does not have those bright white head stripes. They are buffy and rufous, making it look something like an oversized Chipping Sparrow. Sometimes these immature White-crowned Sparrows stay around late into the fall or early winter, when they are occasionally joined by Tree Sparrows. What often happens when I glance out the window is that I finally notice that one of the plain-breasted, juvenile White-crowned Sparrows is too big to be a Chipping Sparrow and also has a breast spot; the mental processor lumbers along and I finally announce to my favorite companion that a Tree Sparrow is at the feeder.
But the real sputzies of the bird world are the empidonax flycatchers. Here in the East, they are the Acadian, Willow, Alder and Least Flycatchers. You can tell they are flycatchers, but making further identification by field marks is very difficult. Some bird guides, for example, have only one picture for the Alder and Willow Flycatchers; for a long time these two “empids” were considered to be the same species, the Traill’s Flycatcher. There are virtually no differences in field marks, not even subtle ones, between the two species. They look alike, and their ranges overlap. The only way to distinguish the two species is by their song. In fact, song is the most reliable way to identify any of the empidonax flycatchers, and a very useful way to identify quickly, and reliably, other sputzie-like flycatchers such as the Eastern Wood-Pewee, Olive-sided Flycatcher, or Eastern Phoebe.
As an aside - don’t despair over the songs (or voice) of the flycatchers. With a little practice, they are distinguishable. Indeed, you probably know the phoebe already. It loves to nest around human structures. It arrives early in the spring and “sings” incessantly: “phoe-be ... Phoe-bee ... phoe-Bee ....” On and on and on.
Idioms do not transfer easily from one part of the country to another, but my friend’s introduction of the term “sputzie” may be an exception, at least in my personal birding vocabulary. When I am frustrated by some elusive, nondescript bird flittering around in a deep thicket or hiding in leaves high overhead, I can mutter, “Sputzie,” and move on. If I am with less experienced and perhaps gullible birding companions, I may even be able to say it with enough authority to make them accept this as an identification ... at least until they start checking the index of their bird guide.
Post of "Tailfeathers," Brattleboro Reformer, Friday, July 31, 2009
First photo includes White-throated Sparrow (white stripe & brown stripe morphs), Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow (juvenile). Other photos are female Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Song Sparrow, juvenile White-crowned Sparrow, Willow Flycatcher.