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My Life’s Birds: #353

November 25, 2009

March 19, 1995 – Greene Co, Mo – When you get to the point as a birder that you begin to think about tackling sparrows, many field guides suggest trying first to identify the birds to genus.  This is certainly a good idea.  When that little brown bird pops up out of the brush, it’s easy to instantly feel overwhelmed by the diversity of North American sparrows when taken as a whole.  But stop and think.  That clean breast and smart cap probably means Spizella, the streaks and long tail would point you towards Melospiza, and that short-tailed, flat-headed guy in the thickest grasses is probably an Ammodramus.  From there the choices are much more manageable, only a handful in each genus.  So relax, it’s not nearly as hard as you think.  You can do this.

For most birders on an average day in the field, thinking in terms of sparrow genus rather than species is probably enough to tackle most problems you might have.  Sparrow (genii?) are often as distinctive as  individual species for many birds. There exist, however, a few oddballs.  Those birds for whom there are no immediate relatives.  Those birds known, and you really need to be imagining a spooky voice to get the full effect, as monotypic genus…es.

It’s not hard to piece out what that means.  These are birds for which there is only one species within a given genus, an only child destined to vex even the most high-minded would-be sparrower.  Besides being sort of interesting as taxonomic novelties, monotypic species often show sets of traits that make them seem sort of like a sparrow grab bag.  While we can assume a big, clean-breasted sparrow with a flashy head pattern is probably a Zonotrichia, imagine if we took a Zonotrichia‘s girth and crammed it into a body patterned more like a Melospiza.  From this we get Fox Sparrow, the solo Passerella, a particularly flashy monotype.

Perhaps we can think of the Vesper Sparrow this way too, except the lone member of genus Pooecetes seemingly combines all of the subtlety of every North American sparrow into one drab, streaky package.  Oh sure, there are field marks; the eyering that’s maddeningly inconsistent, the rufous shoulder patch that you can only occasionally see (in good light), and the distinctive white outer tail feathers only apparent in the last split-second before the bird disappears for good into thick grass, but they seem to only exist to give you something to shoot for, since Vesper Sparrows are rarely so cooperative as to give you a look at more than the hint of one.  So maybe, sometimes, rarely, it is as hard as you think.

And that’s something for those would-be sparrowers to keep in mind, too.  You’re not alone.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.  I’ll be back next week.

Photo from jerryoldenettel via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
  1. November 25, 2009 10:10 am

    I think Vesper Sparrows are amongst the hardest to identify. Whenever you see one, it is rather obvious, but I would say this is mostly due to the fact that it can’t be anything else as the field marks of the other sparrows are missing rather than because it shows the field marks of a Vesper.

  2. Nate permalink*
    November 25, 2009 10:30 am

    @Jochen- That’s about right. I recall one fall a group I was with, that included some really fine birders, found a Vesper and even though the bird was perched on top of a tree for a long time, allowing for absolutely stunning looks through a scope, it still took about 15 minutes of discussion before we felt comfortable nailing down the ID. A tough bird all around.

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