Yes, I know it’s a sparrow, but what kind?

Of course you know how it all starts out. Going to do one thing, then end up doing another! The rain ceased today, this morning actually, and I walked to the pond the see if it was overflowing (it was, but that’s another post). As I walked by the brush pile I had stacked for several years, I saw these birds flitting in the old mesquite stems and thorns. I thought: Ah, more white-crowned sparrows. I know you. I see you all the time.

Wrong.  I got back to the house, downloaded or uploaded the pics and they aren’t white-crowned, they have rufous coloring on their top.  How did I see white in the field?  Okay, I was mistaken.  Not the first time, nor the last.  Fair enough, I go to the Peterson’s.  There are several species of sparrows!  I knew that, but what rufous is it?  Ruffous-crowned, Ruffous-winged?  I finally broke down and went to the photo editor that I have, the Hewlett-Packard all-encompassing uber-editor to enlarge the photo and get some closer definition of attributes.  I take photographs with the full pixel rating: seven, eight megabytes of pixels so I can enlarge and view detail.  Yes, I know.  I am running out of space on my desktop after three years of blogging.  And, this is what I enlarged:

I go back and forth in my Peterson’s looking at all the sparrows, even the larks for goodness sakes. Tail is rounded, mustache? What’s a mustache on a bird?  I go to my Audubon field guide, but it does not even list any rufous sparrows. Oh, it’s an eastern region Audubon.  Figure that, will you?

I getting really frustrated not finding any attribute that is a definite signature until I look at the beak.  The beak.  It’s pink or brownish and the identity is finally achieved.  It is a Field sparrow with rusty cap, pink bill — a Spizella pusillad.*  It’s note is a tsee, having a ‘querulous’ quality.  Thanks to Peterson’s, I am relieved of puzzlement and doubt.

Starting out to check the pond, I end up spending time identifying a bird.  You know, the one with a pink beak and querulous quality to its note.

*Notes, corrections and additions:

For possible error in identity, please see the comments from Caralee and Rubia below.  The link provided by Caralee shows the Rufous-winged Sparrow in several colored photographs that correspond to my photographs of a ‘Field sparrow.’  A factor analysis is in progress to resolve identity.


Filed under Birds, Field Sparrow

19 responses to “Yes, I know it’s a sparrow, but what kind?

  1. Caralee Woods

    Jack, I think what you have here, according to my Peterson’s WESTERN guide (!) is a Rufous-Winged Sparrow. Here is another link with a good photo as well:

    Peterson’s says it has a grey streak down the middle of the rufous streaks on its head, and yours certainly does. At least this is the best match I could find in my bird guides. Arizona is somewhere it likes to be, but also in dry brush. And Mingus is not so very far from Arizona, after all. Probably someone will prove me wrong. Ha.

    • Caralee: Thank you so much for commenting. I have the Peterson WESTERN guide, too, and the Rufous-winged seems to be quite local in Arizona and Mingus is, maybe, outside the range a bit. The Audubon was the one from the east and I didn’t use it in typing. Your link does show the pinkish or brownish bill, for sure, and that makes me back down a notch or two for confidence. I concluded a Field sparrow because of location. Now the querulous note? I heard them sing something, but I was already locked into a white-crowned so I didn’t even focus on the querulous note. I’ll backtrack on the identification until more definition emerges. Frankly, I wanted! it to be the Rufous-winged because that means a migration from Arizona, about one-and-a-half states away, indicating an uncommon sighting due to global warming and over-consuming of things we don’t really need that heats up the earth atmosphere, sending birds from Arizona eastward as well as maxing-out credit cards. Of course, I may be wrong and I digress. I’ll be out in the field a lot this week and I’ll redouble my focus on this guy. As always, it is a pleasure and delight to hear from you. I hope you and Jim are doing well.

      (Caralee Woods and Jimmy Henley live in Utah and are building a strawbale compound. See their website

  2. I’m so glad you were able to identify the pretty thing – but dare I admit here and now that I’m laughing? It’s not only the pink-beaked Spizella pusilla that had a tiny bit of querulous tone to its chirp! 😉

    Truly, there’s nothing in the world more frustrating for me than bird identification. Well, unless it’s wildflower identification. The good news is that flowers don’t fly. On the other hand, they don’t sing, either, and now that Cornell is online with their recorded songs, I sometimes can use that for I.D. It’s fun, I’ll say that – and there’s always something to learn!

  3. Rubia

    Jack, this could also be an immature white-crowned sparrow according to Cornell’s All About Birds website:
    I have seen them around my place with the white-crowned sparrows.

  4. Rubia

    Jack, I gave you the wrong hyperlink. This one is correct

  5. Your curiosity is piqued – good luck finding them again! when I did the GBBC a month ago, I discovered the Cassin’s Finch (vs. the House Finch). Field Guides are wondrous things.

    • Tremendous tools — those Field Guides. Yes, now I am on a mission. Caralee’s and Rubia’s websites are fantastic for bird identification. I did not use them in analyzing, but I will.

  6. What a pretty little red-head. A fine hair-do. A sweet look in the eye too.

    It’s so difficult to identify birds and flowers and butterflies, Birds fly up into the treetop or hide among the bushes, butterflies flutter around like wild and disappear to the next field – flowers keep on their place, but many look like twins!
    The sun is shining today!
    Grethe ´)

  7. That’s a very good photo of the little guy. Now, to thicken the plot a little more, take a close look at the immature White-crowned sparrow on the Cornell website.

    • Montucky, I think you have a good case there. It does look like the Cornell photo. I’ll have to narrow the search and correct my identification. Wild Bill has posted his opinion and of all of us, he carries the most weight with his ecology and experience. I’ve put it off for a few days before I can get back to factor analysis of attributes.

  8. I was doing this very thing this morning,although not as devotedly as you, identifying a sparrow on the feeder. Just when you think you know, another identifying mark or color keeps you wondering… a world of fun!

    And a fun post.

  9. [Here is an updated comment from Caralee Woods with a reference from J.W. Sifford. Thank you, Caralee.]

    Hi Jack,

    Did you ever know one of the early book reps for Harper’s, Larry Sifford? I think he might have had Amarillo in his territory at one time. Whether you did or not, I still stay in close touch with Larry. His brother, JW, is one of the most knowledgable birders in the country. I’m not kidding. He lives in Dallas and has made a lifetime study of birds worldwide–and JW is in his 70s!. I sent him your photo, and I would take it to the bank that his call on what kind of sparrow you photographed is correct. Here is his answer, below. Maybe we both need to add the Sibley Guide to our libraries!


    My best guess that the sparrow is a first winter member of the Taiga race of the White-crowned Sparrow. As far as I know, the only place that you can find a picture is in the Sibley Guide to Birds.

    PS: Larry said that JW’s first choice is not to look at photos–he far prefers to stare at one bird for 15 minutes while others wait impatiently. Ha.

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