Image: Richard Ditch, 2006 [larger view].
Date Time Original: 2006:12:27 10:51:37
Exposure Time: 1/159
Rick Wright, Managing Director of WINGS Birding Tours Worldwide, writes:
This is an oddly shaped bird. We might at first have thought it was an emberizid sparrow, all streaky and brown, but if we start at the rear, we find a strikingly inadequate tail at the end of a very solid-looking body, with a large, squarish head and an outsized bill. That should be enough by itself, but let’s look at some plumage characters just to be sure.
The old Peterson method would have us looking hard to determine whether this sparrow-like bird has streaked or unstreaked underparts. That’s a hard call, as anyone who has ever looked closely at, say, a Swamp Sparrow (or the flanks of this “unstreaked” bird) can attest. When faced with a sparrow-like bird, I look first instead at the back, trying to gauge the amount and density of streaking and the amount of contrast between the mantle and the rump. No need for any subtlety here: what greets our glance is a rich, coarse pattern of very wide orange stripes alternating with black stripes. No emberizid sparrow is going to show that pattern, which is instead classic for a passerid “sparrow,” the bird called House Sparrow.
“Sparrow” is one of those awful words without real taxonomic significance; it basically means “little streaky brown bird we can’t be bothered to identify more precisely right now,” and has been applied and misapplied to so many birds that it just doesn’t mean anything. The native North American sparrows are in the family Emberizidae, which they share with the Old World buntings (which are themselves not very closely related to the New World buntings, with the exception of the Lark Bunting, which is not a cardinalid bunting but a native North American sparrow–got it?). House Sparrows are members of the Old World family Passeridae, closely allied with the weavers and sometimes merged with them in the family Ploceidae. There’s no need to remember all these taxonomic ins and outs, but knowing about them will help beginning birders get over the notion that House Sparrows and “real” sparrows are similar: they aren’t. Even the chunkiest emberizids are slimmer and more elegant than House Sparrows, whose uncontestable cuteness resides almost entirely in their stalwart pudge.
Here’s a challenge, one that I often use in my sparrow workshops: How many differences between House Sparrows and native North American emberizids can you name that are not plumage characters? Surprise yourself!
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