What is "the only common resident breeder in Arizona that
has never been found in any other U.S. state?"
The answer is Rufous-winged Sparrow,
This interesting piece of state birding trivia was first posed
on the internet last winter by Rich Hoyer, Wings tour leader
from Tucson, and would seem to make Rufous-winged Sparrow the
quintessential Arizona special species, a species truly found only here in our state.
Two factors conjoin to give Rufous-winged this unique
status: it is
non-migratory and it requires a habitat niche which has proven
to be extremely narrow.
That niche, extending southward from Tucson across the Mexican
border through Sonora to northern Sinaloa, is a combination of
flat terrain, tall grass, mesquite, cholla, and hackberry
interspersed with bare ground.
Tall grass--read "ungrazed or lightly grazed"--is the
Where you find Rufous-winged Sparrows you will
typically find Black-throated Sparrows, but you won't find
Rufous-winged everywhere you find Black-throated because the
latter is far more adaptable, apparently tolerant of
overgrazing, and evolved to thrive in short grass and sparse
It is fascinating and instructive to view the grazing issue
through the microprism of Rufous-winged Sparrow history in
The penultimate U.S. species to be discovered and described to
science, Rufous-winged Sparrow was first found by Bendire in
1872 in the Tucson area, where it proved to be abundant.
Cattle were introduced to the southern Arizona
grasslands in the late 1880s, a final Rufous-winged specimen
was taken in 1886, and then the species "disappeared" for
nearly 50 years, presumably extirpated from the state and thus
from the country!
Another specimen was not found in Arizona until 1932 when
the bird was rediscovered on the Papago Indian Reservation
near the Baboquivari Mountains, and four years later birds
were seen again in Tucson in areas that had been only lightly
grazed or had not hosted cattle at all.
Since that time Rufous-winged Sparrow has undergone a
slow but steady increase as areas of its required habitat have
been taken out of grazing rotations.
Despite its comeback, Rufous-winged Sparrow is still
considered a local breeder.
At this time of year it can often be
found ground foraging in small family groups in loose
association with Black-throateds and overwintering flocks o
It is perhaps more readily found in early spring and again
during Arizona's "second spring," after the monsoon rains have
begun, when males tee up and sing from the tops of mesquites
or patches of cholla.
Nests are cups of dry grasses placed low in shrubs and
cactus. In wet
years two broods are raised.
Currently one of the easiest spots to find Rufous-winged
Sparrow is in the washes around the hamlet of Continental
below Madera Canyon.
Park in the café/gift shop parking lot, cross the road and the
rail line to the east and search the sparsely vegetated areas
north and south along the tracks. If it is springtime, either first or second, listen for the
distinctive song which consists of two high introductory notes
followed by a lower, accelerating, monotone trill.
Other good strategies are to walk either the gravel 406 Road
which loops off to the right along the main road up to Madera
Canyon or the road into Chino Canyon where the pavement ends. Rufous-wingeds have also been found in Gardner Canyon north
of Sonoita and in residential areas of Green Valley. Recent reports have come from the Arizona Sonoran Desert
Museum on the west side of Tucson and east of Agua Caliente
Park on Tucson's far east side.
As you search for Rufous winged Sparrow consider why,
besides its narrow habitat niche, it might have been such a
late scientific discovery.
It may well have been overlooked because of obvious
plumage similarities with Chipping Sparrow with which it
shares rufous crown and dark "mustache" marks.
Additionally, the wing patch for which the
Rufous-winged is named is often or even typically hidden
beneath that species' scapulars.
But Chippies are
Spizellas--skinny little sparrows with round crowns and
notched tails--and Rufous-wingeds are Aimophilas--robust sparrows with flat crowns and long, rounded
Though it may not be visually stunning like many of our
state's special species, Rufous-winged Sparrow is a handsome
sparrow and, by virtue of its singular and revealing
biogeographical history in the state, well deserving of its
cover status on Phillips, Marshall, and Monson's classic
Birds of Arizona