At the top of a birder’s wish list, you’ll likely find brightly colored species like cardinals, flickers or blue birds. But the little brown birds—also known as LBBs—shouldn’t be overlooked.
LBB’s get their nickname because they can be difficult to identify from a distance, so birders will simply write them down as a Little Brown Bird.
These small birds can be a pleasure to watch and can be identified with a few key tips. Looking at size, beak shape, tail length, leg color, wing shape and distinctive patterns and colors can be helpful visual clues. Considering the habitat and time of year can also help narrow down which species you’re looking at.
Ready to identify some LBBs? Learn more about these 5 species than can be found in the Chesapeake region!
Each spring, a familiar tune fills the air as song sparrows begin their annual courting ritual. The bird becomes more active as the days get longer and warmer—reciting their distinctive trill and building their nests—so they should be fairly easy to spot if they’re around.
Song sparrows are habitat generalists that can be found year-round in the Chesapeake Bay watershed’s forests, marshes, urban and suburban areas. They can be seen foraging on the ground for seeds and insects or perched singing on shrubs and grasses. They make quick flights between areas of cover and will pump their tails while flying.
The most notable characteristic about their appearance is their chest, which has streaks of reddish-brown and white or gray. The streaks are often denser near their neck and fade to a gray or white near their belly. They also have stripes of brown and gray on their head, short bills, long and rounded tail and broad wings.
These beautiful birds can be seen in most of the Chesapeake region during their nonbreeding season and can be found year-round in the upper portions of the watershed.
White-throated sparrows are large sparrows with small beaks. They have black on brown streaked backs and wings with a gray chest. The head has thick black and white stripes with a bright yellow patch between the eyes and beak. It also has its namesake white patch on its throat. Good indicators for a positive identification are the peek at its white and yellow eyebrows, formally known as supercilium, and its white throat.
White-throated sparrows can be seen foraging on the ground scratching for seeds and will regularly travel in large flocks.
The Carolina wren is a year-round resident in the Chesapeake watershed. Its back, wings and tail are rust-colored with slightly darker barring on the wings and tail. Its chest is a light yellow-brown color and it has a white patch on its throat and a white eyebrow extending from its beak to its neck. The bird’s characteristic bill is thin, long and down-curved.
Carolina wrens live in dense vegetation and can be seen hopping up and down tree trunks. They often hold their tails pointing upwards.
Wood thrushes can be seen in the Chesapeake region in deciduous forests during their breeding season. It is a ground foraging bird that prefers areas with leaf litter.
The wood thrush, which is similar in size and shape to an American Robin, has a cinnamon colored back, a white chest with dark brown spots and a white ring around its eyes. It has a big belly, short tail and straight bill.
The eastern phoebe can be found in the lower parts of the Chesapeake watershed year-round and in the upper parts during their summer breeding season, often building nests near bridges and overhangs.
These birds lack bold patterns and have a soft brown-gray color on their head, back and wings, with their head being darker than the rest of their body. Their chest is covered in gray and white. Their legs and beaks are black. They sometimes raise the feathers on their head to look like they have a crest.
Phoebes are in the flycatcher family and make frequent short flights to catch insects before returning to their perch. They are known for wagging their tails up and down when they sit on perches.
Paying attention to the details
Although visual cues can be helpful, bird calls can also be accurate identification tools and thankfully there’s an app for that! The Cornell Lab Merlin Bird ID app has a sound function that can help you identify and learn bird calls. It also has a list of identification features so you can look for identification tips. If you’re able to get a picture of the bird you can upload it to the iNaturalist app to get feedback from other users on the app.
At first glance, all of these birds might look like boring little brown birds, but when you look closely you see how unique each one is.