To refresh your memory, here is the photo from October’s Bird Quiz. It was taken in Colorado during the month of October. Don’t read any further if you want one last chance to identify this bird.
First off, I want to emphasize that this is a tricky bird, probably the most challenging of all my quiz birds to date. In fact, I had it mislabeled in my files until a far better birder than I am pointed out my mistake. (Thanks, John!) And even he consulted with several other top-notch birders to confirm his ID. So don’t feel too frustrated if you couldn’t figure it out.
With that said, where do we start? I think most of us can agree that it’s a sparrow. There are other sparrow-like birds—little brown jobs with similar markings, such as female and immature House Finches—but this bird, with its striped head, brown coloring, pink legs, and seed-eating bill, is clearly a sparrow. Now, which sparrow is it?
For years I’ve tried to ID sparrows according to field marks. Is the breast striped or clear? Is there a central spot? What color is the bill? Is it gray-brown or russet-brown? (At this point the bird is long gone.) As a result, I’m truly horrible at sparrow identification. Then I picked up a little paperback in the Peterson Field Guide Series. It’s called Advanced Birding, and was written by Kenn Kaufman. (This is not a new book. My copy was published in 1990.)
In a very short chapter near the end of the book, Kaufman points out the failings of trying to ID sparrows using field marks. I could relate to every example. Then he points out an alternative. I’m still new at this better approach to sparrows, but it served me well at the CFO convention last month. After all these years, I’m finally making some progress.
Kaufman advises categorizing sparrows by genus, the same way a taxonomist would. Start with the bird’s shape and behavior. Worry about field marks later.
According to this book, there are ten groups of New World (Emberizine) sparrows (just LBJs, not counting towhees, longspurs, and other easily-identified genera). Some groups only have one member, such as the Lark Sparrow. Kaufman lists these ten categories, along with which birds fall into each group, and their basic characteristics. Each section is illustrated with the outline of a sample bird, so you can compare shapes.
For example, the genus Melospiza includes Song, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. According to the book, they are…
Robust, medium-large sparrows, with longish tails that are rounded at the tip. Usually found low in dense vegetation, and can be secretive. Never in large flocks; usually solitary, or in pairs at the most. Call notes are loud and distinctive.
Genus Zonotrichia includes White-throated, Golden-crowned, White-crowned, and Harris’s sparrows. Kaufman describes them as…
Medium-large to large sparrows, with tail fairly long and square-tipped, crown slightly peaked, bill not disproportionately large. In winter found in brushy areas, almost always in flocks; feed on the ground but often perch conspicuously in the open when disturbed. Call notes sharp and distinctive.
I have not yet learned the characteristics of each of these ten genera, but I’m working on it. In the meantime, I’m thankful that field guides are arranged in phylogenetic order. This means that each genus is grouped together. You can quickly page through to get your bird’s shape, then narrow it down to species. (I wish field guides included more notes on behaviors!)
So… which genus is our bird in?
The one major drawback to identifying sparrows by genus is that you really have to see the bird. How else can you gauge its behavior? You don’t know if the sparrow pictured here was in a flock or off on its own (it was by itself). You don’t know if it stayed perched out in the open, or if it was skulking in the undergrowth, and I just happened to get a lucky shot in (I was lucky). You can’t hear its call note (it didn’t say anything, so I didn’t either). Even the shape is hard to estimate; birds change shape as they move around and a photo only captures one instant. Seeing the bird in action is much better.
So… what to do when faced with a photo? Back to field marks!
I won’t go through the whole process—this post is long enough. Let’s just list the marks: reddish brown plumage on the sides, gray on the breast. Pale stripes from the neck to the mid-breast. Eye ring. Gray beak with a (very) tiny bit of yellow near the face. Gray stripe on the head, with black below it behind the eye.
Several commenters have guessed White-throated Sparrow. Is that correct? Well, the throat lacks that distinctive white color, as well as a “sharp, dark lower border” (as Sibley puts it). The lores (between the eyes above the beak) aren’t bright yellow either, a sure diagnostic field mark for White-throated Sparrow. I only have this quick “record” shot of a White-throated Sparrow, but you can still see the difference.
In fact, the only bird that completely matches our photo is a Swamp Sparrow. This is a young bird heading into its first winter. Both my expert birders (the kind of experts who write field guides) were confident of this ID. In fact, it was a pretty big deal, as Swamp Sparrows are rarely seen in Colorado—especially at a drought-stricken ranch out on the short-grass prairie! It was in an isolated marshy area (which is why we were birding there) surrounded by miles of parched scrub and dead grass. Who would have thought?