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Mike Jacobs: To be sure of bird identification, check again

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

A new species, the first in a fortnight, showed up at my feeder array early last week, and I was happy to see it. It was an American tree sparrow, not unexpected at this time of year. The tree sparrow is an early migrant. Those passing through our area are probably bound for northern Manitoba, where tree sparrows are common nesting birds.

My view of it was clear and full on. The top of the bird's head was red or rusty; the back was streaked with brown; the wings had white bars; the breast was clear except for some smudges.

The bird was among a flock of juncos feeding on sunflower seed I had strewn across the deck.

None of these marks rule out an American tree sparrow. None of them prove it, either, and I began to have doubts. Was the bird actual or aspirational? These feelings increased when I made a sketch of the bird, and Suezette remarked, "Oh! It's another redpoll."

Yikes! Of course it could have been. I had recklessly neglected due diligence. I failed to check all the field marks to clinch the identification.

Experienced birders will smile at this. None of us could mistake a redpoll for a tree sparrow, I thought. So I accepted my initial conclusion. Certainly the bird was not a redpoll.

With a little reflection, however, I realized that it could have been. The tree sparrow should seem plumper than the redpoll, which is a sleek bird, but this is hardly a reliable field mark, especially on a chilly morning when birds puff out their feathers to trap warmth. Most redpolls would show some pink or rose on the upper breast, but this is by no means always present, and it varies in extent from bird to bird. The red spot, or poll, on the redpoll's head would be less extensive than the rust on a tree sparrow, and it would ordinarily appear brighter. But I saw the bird early on an overcast day. The light was not at its best as far as distinguishing colors on small spaces is concerned.

So, it could have been a tree sparrow.

If so, however, it was a straggler, the only one of its kind among a swarm of other birds. The crowd at my feeders runs to 100 or more on most days, and lately, they've been joined by perhaps half as many dark-eyed juncos. I've scanned these birds as they've come to the smorgasbord I offer them, and nary a tree sparrow has appeared since that very first one, the only one I'd seen.

Could that single bird have been hidden in the flock? Could I have overlooked a stranger in the midst of all those birds?

American tree sparrows are migrants here, and sometimes they spend the winter, especially if food is readily available. They often are seen on Christmas bird counts throughout the area. In fact, the species is connected in my mind with blustery fall days and chilly winter mornings, and not so much with early spring when the sun is stronger and the weather more fickle. My most memorable recent sighting was in late October, when I was with a group of students on a field trip that involved a hike in the Turtle Mountains. Birds were scarce, so I wasn't able to show them many. A small group of tree sparrows crossed our path, though, and added to the hiking experience, at least for me.

That's how tree sparrows should be seen, in small groups, six or 10 birds, perhaps, and in scrubby woods, their favorite habitat. My backyard is overgrown, but it hardly qualifies as woodland. Conceivably, though, a tree sparrow could have found congenial quarters in the shelterbelt or perhaps even in the garden, where I'd left the stalks and seed heads of sunflowers, zinnias and some other plants with the comfort of the birds in mind.

Had my hospitality attracted a tree sparrow? Why only one?

The week didn't provide any other sightings of tree sparrows to reassure me that my birding skills were intact. Instead, I had to accept the truth. I hadn't taken time to be sure.

As the week wore on, I gained renewed confidence, however. A red-winged blackbird showed up at one feeder and a mourning dove at another. One morning, I found a robin singing in a tree top.

At least I'm pretty sure of those identifications, though come to think of it, could that mourning dove really have been a Eurasian collared dove?

I'll have to have another look.