Images: Notes on Rusty Sparrow (top) with Black-chested Sparrow (middle), and Five-striped and Cassin’s Sparrow (bottom left, and right, respectively). Ink on paper.
A stacking of experiences, bits of information, and glimpses beyond what I had previously thought I had known – is it possible to just soak life in and not constantly question it?
I have been watching sparrows. From my pensive (and peevish) day of observing Olive Sparrows in TX (post here), to a lucky find of Cassin’s in SE New Mexico, through to a lovely morning with Bob Behrstock on his patch in SE Arizona locating Botteri’s and Black-chinned, on to a week of solitude in the AZ grasslands, where I found Rufous-winged (and photographed Brewer’s Sparrows – photo here), I have found myself continuously amazed at current and former taxonomy.
It is one thing to absorb someone else’s image of an idea of a bird species (e.g. a field guide illustration), it is quite another to want to understand why those decisions have been made. Aimophila has never struck me as a tidy genus. Peucaea, its resurrected cousin, seems only modestly more so. And who knows just what is going on with Five-striped Sparrow, now tucked into Amphispiza.
With questions (sorry, no answers here, only inquiry) burning in my brain, I have been visiting specimen collections as I move around the country. I looked at Melospiza and Ammodramus at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (post here), and at Arremonops at the Texas Cooperative Wildlife Collection at Texas A&M. For the last two weeks I have been up to my elbows in Aimophila, Amphispiza, and of course the newer (older) Peucaea – why why why are they divided as they are? I spent the first week drawing at the California Academy of Sciences, under a camera and under scrutiny of anyone passing through the museum lobby, where I sat within the glass walls of the Project Lab. May I take a moment to redefine personal bravery? I work in ink, as I have mentioned, which is scary enough because once a mark is made, there it sits, in all its potential for error or clumsiness. Let’s take that to another level, and put a nice bright white sheet of blank paper, a pen, and my hand, all under a digital video camera, and then project the entire process into a busy lobby via a large screen. Yikes! But strangely fun.
Working at the California Academy of Sciences Project Lab, and a view from the lobby looking in.
What was I saying? Oh, yes, I spent a week at Cal Academy, and then moved over to Berkeley, where I spent a second week in an academic setting at the UC Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Sparrow skins, eight hours a day, for two straight weeks, may not strike you as the most fun way to spend a visit to the Bay Area, but I was in heaven.
Are Botteri’s, Cassin’s, and Bachman’s Sparrows really in the same genus as Stripe-headed, Black-chested, and Bridled? The question of Five-striped Sparrow is perhaps even more interesting, currently sitting next to Sage and Black-throated in Amphispiza. The AOU may split or lump species, but not merely on a whim. The current arrangement for these particular sparrows stems from genetic studies, particularly a mitochondrial phylogeny presented by Da Costa, et al. (2009), and then followed by proposals to the AOU Committee (the NACC, link here) by Chesser, et al. (2009) and then a formal rearranging in the 51st Supplement to the AOU Check-list of North American Birds, 7th Ed. (2010) (link here).
Amphispiza reflects not only genetics but convenience, for the moment. Five-Striped Sparrow seems just about a sister to Black-throated, but still the two are almost as separated as are different genera. Sage Sparrow, sitting in Amphispiza with Black-throated prior to the last merge, appears to be related to neither (Chesser, et al. (2009), which in turn cites Cicero, unpubl. data).
There are ways to make taxonomic decisions in birds. There are the aforementioned genetic analyses. There are differences and similarities in vocalizations (for a neat comparison for these sparrows see The Genus Formerly Known as Aimophila on Earbirding.com), and there are environmental and behavioral characteristics to weigh in as well. Then there are the older, less sexy origins in physical resemblances and differences. In varying proportions, these factors can define relationships, genera, species.
What am I doing mucking around in all of this?! I have an eye for weirdness. On the surface, I look at physical characteristics, and make pretty (or not so pretty) drawings, but in the hours spent, the thoughts and patterns that emerge are anything but superficial. Morphological differences may be relevant or not, especially coming from someone like me, but the more I look, the more things I seem to find. More to come.
Top image: detail of a Black-chested Sparrow, ink on paper
Middle image: detail of Five-striped Sparrow studies, ink on paper
Bottom image: detail of a Rusty Sparrow, ink on paper
A word of heartfelt thanks: without the kind permission and guidance of Maureen Flannery at the California Academy of Sciences and Carla Cicero, Ph.D at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, I would never have been able to begin such an inquiry. Working with the specimens was invaluable.
The current taxonomic lineup of the sparrows I was looking at:
Aimophila, now only three species:
Amphispiza, also three: