by Michael Male and Judy Fieth
Blue Earth Films,
VHS Videotape, 78 Minutes, December 2002
DVD, 78 Minutes + extras, January 2003
"Gulls are difficult, and warblers are elusive," conceded an elder
birder in my presence in a weedy field many years ago, "but these
little brown jobs will be the death of me!"
Familiar sentiments, I'm sure. How many of us gnash our teeth at the
prospect of chasing down an errant passerine that strikes us out
with none of the three main visual clues (size, coloration, field
marks) to help us identify it?
Watching Sparrows, a new video by the team of Michael Male (video
photography) and Judy Fieth (audio recording), gets us up-close and
personal with the wide-ranging and diverse species of sparrows that
span every corner of North America. Male and Fieth spent three
years on the project, traveling 40,000 miles, and visiting a
plethora of habitats from coast to coast, The Keys to Katahdin,
Monterey to Mt. McKinley.
Every sparrow species portrayed in this smooth-flowing video
features a color portrait of a spring male, shown singing -- beak
wide, in full voice, exploding with song. Moreover, the studies --
ranging for 1-3 minutes, with most a substantial 90 seconds -- has
well-written narrative well-delivered by the principals. They
explain points of biological adaptation, feeding techniques and
preferences, courting, mating and nesting behaviors. They
weave their bits of narrative, deftly between
vocalizations, careful not to "step on the lines" of the
The attending parade of panoramic shots of nationwide habitats --
prairies, tundra, woods, desert, chaparral, pine forest -- never
quite upstage the birds themselves, but they sure make impressive
backdrops. They vary the pacing too, sometimes starting with
close-ups of singers, sometimes with amazing pans across majestic
The sense of aesthetic discrimination expressed by Fieth and Male
largely parallels my own close-up birding preferences, which are
dictated in part, I admit, by the limiting encroachments of age. As
I derive more visual joy from watching blue jays hop around in my
backyard oak than I do scoping dowitchers at 300 yards, likewise I'm
just as happy to hear the pristine piccolo of our everyday
White-throated Sparrow atop a neighboring pine to the distant trill
of a Varied Thrush.
Male and Fieth stick fairly closely to taxonomic order, leading
with towhees, running through the juncos and longspurs. They cover 46
species in all, omitting only the far-flung Emberiza Buntings
(Rustic, Snow and McKay's.) They occasionally dwell on interesting
(or cooperative) subspecies, such as Bell's Sage Sparrow, Cape
Sable Seaside Sparrow, and Belding's Savannah Sparrow. They
also explore the high variability of the Fox Sparrow group, and
squeeze in the Dark-Eyed Juncos.
The authors also make us aware of man's agriculture and development
threats to sensitive habitats, and its devastating effects on
dependent species (Botteri's, Brewers', Longspurs).
There are some intimate surprises. The authors cherry-pick a few
choice skylarking moments of Lark Bunting, the dazzling courtship
flights of McCown's Longspur, and the cackled greetings of mated
Abert's Towhees. We get into the nests to see the raising of chicks
by Roufous-Crowneds, Vespers, and Fields. We see and learn why
Swamps and Rufous-wingeds have long, strong legs. We not only learn
of the odd promiscuity and skittishness of Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed
males, but also view one at point-blank range, rakishly whispering his
'sweet-talking daddy' routine.
Encores are included in a quick-cut section of singing males in sequence.
The five full minutes of consecutive curtain calls of singing males of
each species achieves much of the drama and elbow-rubbing of
personalities of a jazz jam session. Now, that's a rap!