I prepared for my American trip by flicking through the National Geographic Society’s Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2nd edition 1987, a wonderful book in its day but superseded by The Sibley Guide to Birds which I’m saving up for.
As I browsed I came across the New World Sparrows and thought to myself “I’m going to have trouble with these”. In 1987 the index contained 35 sparrows, one of which is the good old House Sparrow described in Wikipedia as …
a symbol of lust, sexual potency, commonness, and vulgarity.
Fortunately for the remaining 34 are not they are not tainted by close association. The House Sparrow is the lustworthy centerfold of the Passeridae whilst the New World Sparrows are in the family Emberizidae, the Buntings and New World Sparrows, members of the nine primaried oscines along with the wonderful warblers though, sadly, nowhere nearly as exciting. They tend to live on the ground and most are nicely disguised for life in dry grass.
Things have changed over the years. In Audubon’s day you went bird watching with a fowling-piece and came back with creatures you could stuff or draw …
In 1987 you took your binoculars, now you need a genetics laboratory, the advent of DNA studies has tossed the taxonomy of birds into total chaos. Audubon’s Foxcoloured Sparrow of 1831 was the Fox Sparrow in 1987 and is now four separate species according to the Handbook of the Birds of the World. Things did not get easier and plumages vary from individual to individual.
There is a site on the web that is of some use to the beginner, or visiting expert (the same thing) Birdzilla. It offers a key based on three field marks
- Is the breast streaked or clear?
- Does the bird have wing bars ?
- Is there an eye ring?
Based on these you can get in the ballpark where the remainder of your observations will nail your bird. Maybe. Bear in mind though that wing bars and eye rings vary with the freshness of the plumage and the angle of the light.
So here we go …
Streaks – yes, eye ring – yes, wing bar – faint at best. Note the yellow supercilium. Oh dear, the key ain’t working. It’s a Savannah Sparrow. That eye ring is leading us towards Vesper Sparrow – saved by the yellow.
The eye ring won’t get us this time …
because the Song Sparrow is included in the eye ring positive and negative groups. It’s the other details that get us home, central spot in the breast, grey above and below the eye.
So the key has to be used with caution and it’s no use here either because it only works for adult birds and this one is a juvenile …
There is no alternative to practise and critical analysis. I got all these wrong but my friend who has had the practice sorted me out. If you disagree please tell me why and I’ll take it up with him!