Photo Quiz #8 Answer

By Jim Burns

With the short, conical bills and cryptic dark on light markings, you know we are dealing with the sparrow family in this month's quiz. When we visited with Cassin's Sparrow six months ago, I was extolling the benefits of beginning any sparrow identification, not with plumage but with jizz (the overall "look" of the bird), specifically the shape and size of the body, the crown, and the tail. Confronted here with frontal views, however, we need to take a step back. Bodies and tails are obscured, and our third bird, perhaps alarmed, has erected its crown feathers, obscuring crown shape. We will have to rely on plumage after all.

The good news is that these photos are "feather studies," close-ups that provide excellent dorsal plumage views. If you remember or still have the Golden Field Guide Birds of North America, you'll recall a two page spread showing all the sparrows with streaked breasts on one side and all those with unstreaked breasts on the other. This issue's quiz birds are all on the left-hand spread, birds with streaked breasts. This leaves us with only a dozen Golden Guide candidates, one of them not even a sparrow.

A) Good photo, easy bird


Up close and personal we can enjoy this bird's heavy, dark breast streaking, really quite defined and spectacular compared with the light and often indistinct markings on most sparrows. The streaks form distinct and often separate triangles, always reminiscent to me of the way mountain ranges are denoted on maps. The triangles converge near the throat into a single spot. Note the light bill, the lower mandible apparently lighter than the upper, and the round and obvious eyering.

Once we've eliminated the thrush family with its longer, thinner bills and spotted rather than streaked underparts, the only bird that might cause temporary confusion with our photo bird is the Song Sparrow. Song Sparrow will show heavy streaking, usually with a central breast spot, but never the distinctly shaped "mountains" we see here, and Song Sparrow will have a much brighter and more well defined white throat and a darker lower mandible.

This Fox Sparrow was photographed at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, December, 1989. There is usually at least one Fox Sparrow reported somewhere around the Valley every winter. When looking for this very distinct sparrow be quiet and patient. Scritchers and scratchers like towhees, they will often pop out for close views when there is no noise and no movement.


B) Good photo, difficult bird

This photo could pass as a perfect composite of the generic sparrow--short, conical bill; dark cheek patch outlined by lighter tones; at least the hint of a whisker mark; streaking on the underparts. How can we come up with a specific species from a generic composite? Well, there is one obvious field mark in this photo which you will never see on a sparrow! Have you been tricked? Well, in a sense you've tricked yourself. The problem here is that you never visualize this bird in winter attire and you rarely see an individual of this species by itself.

If you've dug out your Golden Guide to the page with streaked-breasted sparrows, by now you're looking at the twelfth bird, the aberration. It's a winter Purple Finch pictured for sparrow comparison. Now you notice our quiz bird's short, conical bill looks even stubbier and more curved, really huge for your average sparrow. Compare it to our other quiz birds. Now look again at the dark face patch outlined by white above and below which offsets the dark whisker mark. It could be a winter Purple Finch, but . . .

You're not getting the picture unless you're seeing the large white wing patch, which no Purple Finch nor any bird with "sparrow" in its name would show. This winter male Lark Bunting was photographed at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, November, 1998. It was by itself, which gave me looong pause. There is some black in the chin area and the wing patch is not white in the slide, but a delicate buff, like cream with a little bit of coffee in it. These color keys mark the bird as a male.

C) Bad photo, easy bird


I may catch some heat for calling this an easy bird but not for calling it a bad photograph. This bad photo is the result of trying to make the most of an unexpected great opportunity. This sparrow popped up on a fence wire directly in front of me, filling the frame. It was closer than I had ever been to this species, with or without a camera. When a sparrow fills your frame, you click the shutter and ask questions later. The answer to the questions is: the bird was sidelit, not frontlit. Sidelight works with binoculars because there is no intermediate step between the glass and your eye to rob the image of shadow detail. Film just can't translate from glass to eye without direct light. Light creates color. Light produces detail.

Nonetheless, I think we have enough detail for identification. The breast streaking appears fine and neat rather than splotchy and dispersed, and there is just the hint of a central spot. Shadow obscures the bird's flank, but the streaking appears to stop at the breastline, not continuing down onto the belly, and the belly appears lighter than the breast and flank. If we return to the streak-breasted twelve and eliminate those already discussed and those not expected in central Arizona in the winter, we are left to choose between Vesper, Lincoln's, and Savannah.

Savannah would show thicker, more extensive streaking. Vesper would show a thicker, more complete eyering and never even a hint of a central breast spot. This Lincoln's Sparrow was photographed November, 1993 at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum. Allow me one byte of subjective jizz, corroborated by our photo bird. I rarely see a Lincoln's without its crest raised, whereas I rarely see any other sparrow with its crest raised. If you pish up a sparrow with an erect crown, start with Lincoln's and go from there. It's a plan that has worked for me.

Let me close with two caveats if and when you must use plumage rather than body shape for sparrows. Given a close enough view almost all sparrows will show an eyering and mustachial markings. Almost all unstreaked-breasted sparrow juveniles will show streaking. Welcome to sparrow identification: always challenging; often humbling.