Mystery Bird: House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

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[Mystery bird] House (English) Sparrow, Passer domesticus, photographed in Arizona. [I will identify this bird for you tomorrow]
Image: Richard Ditch, 2006 [larger view].

Date Time Original: 2006:12:27 10:51:37
Exposure Time: 1/159
F-Number: 9.00
ISO: 400


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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About GrrlScientist

grrlscientist is the pseudonym of an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist who writes about evolution, ethology, and ecology, especially in birds. After earning a degree in microbiology (thesis focus: virology) and working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she earned her PhD in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle, where she studied the molecular correlates of testosterone and behaviour in white-crowned sparrows. She then worked a Chapman Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where she studied the speciation and distribution of lories and other parrots throughout the South Pacific Islands. A discarded scientist, she returned to her roots: writing. Formerly hosted by The Guardian (UK), she now writes about science for Forbes and for the non-profit think tank, the Evolution Institute and she writes podcasts for BirdNote Radio. An avid lifelong birder and aviculturist, she lives with a flock of songbirds and parrots somewhere in Germany.
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0 Responses to Mystery Bird: House Sparrow, Passer domesticus

  1. Haha. Female house sparrow.

  2. Bob O'H says:

    It’s a lesser ground scaup.

  3. Gindy says:

    Yuck, female house sparrow. Invasive species in the USA. Nasty things kill blue birds, tree swallows and other native cavity nesters to take over their nests. BAD birds.

  4. Hilary says:

    Yup – female House Sparrow – unusually easy to recognize. I’ve stared at many a similar bird in the dust, trying to make it be something else….

  5. Juila says:

    Being from Europe: House sparrow.

  6. RM says:

    good one, Bob!

  7. Dumpster Finch? Burger Kinglet? McDonald’s Warbler?

  8. The Ridger says:

    LBJ – a house sparrow, I’m pretty sure.

  9. bobk says:

    Bagel Bird
    So one day, before I became a birder, I was taking a break with a coworker at a sidewalk café in a small town along the Jersey shore. Most of the people, like myself, were having coffee and the freshly baked bagels the place was known for. The bagels were also good for feeding the birds which had learned to perch on the railing along the sidewalk until someone tossed them a crumb. All the birds looked very common much like the one pictured above. And for some reason a revelation occurred to me. I asked, “Do you know the saying -you are what you eat? If that saying is true these birds are mostly bagel”.

  10. JohnB says:

    It took a couple of seconds for this one to register as it’s obviously out of its natural habitat: Chuckie Cheese’s parking lot.
    Mystery Bird=House Sparrow.

  11. apikoros says:

    Y’know, I ID’ed this one right off, as did others above. But I have to disagree with those above about their opinion of the sparrow. I love sparrows, and I would miss them tremendously if they were to disappear. If you are on a wildlife refuge in Texas, or in the Everglades, or even in a coastal embayment you will see far more impressive birds, but for those of us trapped in an office tower, the sparrow, the starling, and the pigeon are pretty much our avian universe. I love sparrows for being so happy, so chatty, and for teaching me more than all the audobon pictures in the universe.
    Did you know that a bird can fly entirely without tail feathers? I didn’t until I saw a sparrow do it. Maybe not as maneuverable as normal, but it got around. And watching fledglings plead for food, priceless. Starlings…. did you know they are brown when juvenile? Again, I didn’t until I started watching them and feeding them this spring. And they are black in the spring and specked in the fall. and oh, so much else, all fascinating to me.
    Compared to the rest of you, I’m ignorant as a rock, but I am learning slowly but surely. I love the city birds for being my primary school teachers and however much I may later learn, I will always respect even these early teachers.

  12. RM says:

    I welcome all sparrows at my feeders as well. Cowbirds, on the other hand…

  13. Passer-Aggressive says:

    It’s a female Black-throated Brown.

  14. there has many a dark and chilly day in NYC when the only birds i see are english sparrows, picking at birdseed that some well-meaning NYCer has left on snow-encrusted sidewalks. watching these birds eat reminds me that even in a cold and cruel time in a huge and impersonal city, a few people still care enough to look out for the most vulnerable among us. so i too, share your affection for english (house) sparrows, apikoros, for the lessons this humble bird teaches us when we care enough to watch them.

  15. Passer Pax says:

    … and even if house sparrows do trouble you, you can’t really blame THEM. They came to North America WITH various peoples who came here, notably Europeans, I believe. They thrive where they do because of human activity. Wanting to be rid of them is sort of like wanting to be rid of the toes on the end of your feet, I’ve always felt.

  16. Mark says:

    Those of you who love sparrows much love bird monocultures too.
    These are invasive species that have decimated bluebird and other native bird populations. They are a man-made environmental disaster and we have a moral duty to eradicate them to the degree possible in the new world.
    It’s not “nice” but neither is evading our responsibility for what may be the eventual extinction of blue birds and possibly tree swallows. I, for one, am willing to try to ameliorate the situation to the degree I can. I will humanely kill every house sparrow that I safely and legally can.

  17. Draden says:

    I have raised a bird of this species, only the male version. I wish I could post a picture to show you. Also found in Arizona, Tempe to be exact. This is exactly what the females look like, the males have a touch of black feathers above their bill, browner feathers like shown in the picture, and a whiter underbelly with just a few touches of black feathers horizontally across the chest.