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Mystery Birds

Looks like a mutant sparrow?
But - color in the black and the red wing!
Mrs. House Finch is pretty nondescript
Now - dip her in raspberry jam and you have Mr. House Finch
Here they are together
A 'new' bird for me!
Surely not the same as this guy
Not all black-throated sparrows are Black-throated Sparrows!

When birds look WRONG!

    Okay - you’re looking at this bird under your feeder and it doesn’t look right. You know the normal cast of characters out there and then this new one shows up – something like a sparrow, but not shaped quite right. It’s brown above and streaked below, but something’s wrong.
    Then, next to it there’s another puzzle. It is also streaked and basically brown, but the markings aren’t quite as sharp, as if the bird is just a little out of focus. You like to feed the birds, but what on earth are these?
    With any luck the puzzle may solve itself. Perhaps a bird you do know will land next to the mystery bird and something will click in your mind. Why would that be?
    These days many people just snap a picture and post it on the ‘Birding Nantucket’ Facebook page and a bunch of people will weigh in on it. Even a bad picture is often good enough.
    The bird mentioned first is usually a female Red-winged Blackbird. They are so different from their mates that this seems thoroughly unlikely. They are not black and have no red wing patches. But if Mr. Blackbird lands nearby, you can notice they are shaped the same. The bill is long and slim, not stubby like a sparrow’s, and you might notice that they walk, rather than hop. This turns out to be useful for a number of identifications.
    The other streaky sparrow-like bird mentioned earlier turns out to be Mrs. House Finch. The males with their raspberry colors are easy, but, particularly in the fall, the youngsters lack any bright colors and the females never have them. Again, association can be a key to identification. You seldom see just one House Finch, they tend to rove around in bands of 10 or 15 and it’s not unusual to have all variations visible at once. It’s important to get the feel for how House Finches behave – and by the way – they are hoppers, not walkers.
    When I was starting out learning my birds, I lived right in town as most Nantucketers did in the early 50s. Regular people lived in houses that now only the wealthy can afford. 
    A rather brown, nondescript bird appeared in my back yard at 3 Chestnut Street. It was small and it hopped around, feeding with the House Sparrows that we called ‘English’ Sparrows back then. House Sparrows are boldly marked, showing a lot of rich brown and gray, with a big black ‘thumbprint’ on their throat and white in the wing – easy to identify. Now this new species was noticed – light brown underneath, unstreaked, with a tan stripe through the eye. Great! I had another bird species coming to my yard.
    It wasn’t until I was given my first bird book, Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide, that I had this ‘Ahah’ moment and realized these two birds were actually the same species, just boys and girls. At age 13, I had discovered something known as ‘sexual dimorphism’ in birds, an area that was still a mystery to me in humans.
    Roger also helped me to understand that young House Sparrows look pretty-much like females, regardless of their gender, at least until they go through their first feather molt in the spring.
    A friend phoned me a few years ago with the opposite experience. He told me he had a Black-throated Sparrow in his yard. I figured he knew the normal birds around Nantucket, so along with several other birders, we headed to his house, over in Nashaquisset across from the Junior High School. It was early spring – chilly – so it was good to sit inside and look through the sliding door out into his yard, and wait – and wait. There it is, he proclaimed. And there was a male House Sparrow. He’d been seeing females and young birds all winter and here was a snappy little male that had just molted out his black throat thumbprint! It was good we could answer this question. Actual Black-throated Sparrows live way out in the southwestern US and seldom stray from there. His backyard would have become a Mecca for birders if a real Black-throated Sparrow showed up there.
    I’ve covered just a few of the mystery birds you may encounter in your yard. I’ll leave you to puzzle about what happens to the bright yellow American Goldfinches in winter and why most White-throated Sparrows don’t have white throats. 

Ken Blackshaw’s ornithological career began in the early 1950s under the tutelage of Nantucket’s birding doyenne, the late, Edith Folger Andrews. Since then he has traveled the world over, courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, IBM, and now retired, seeing birds, studying their behavior and authoring and editing many books about birds. He is nationally recognized for his birding skills. Catch Ken with Birding Nantucket on WNCK, Nantucket's NPR Station at 89.5 FM, weekdays at 8:04 am. Ask Ken a question at: [email protected]