Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina, photographed at Illinois Beach State Park, Lake County, Illinois. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Janice Sweet, 20 October 2009 [larger view].

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

I am helping you prepare for the Christmas Bird Count by posting so many images of the Chipping Sparrow, since this is a commonly misidentified CBC species (in Illinois, at least).

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 Another Kevin
    November 30, 2009

    What ye hae, here, lassie, is a wee broon birdie. 🙂

    The white eye ring and unstreaked breast make me want to say Spizella pusilla, the American Field Sparrow. It’s surely common in Illinois.

    But I could very easily be wrong, since there are a lot of wee broon birdies out there.

  2. #2 John Callender
    November 30, 2009

    I agree that it looks like a Spizella, but I can’t make it match any of the illustrations in Sibley particularly well. I guess I’m leaning toward Chipping Sparrow, based on the “strong, dark eye-line”, “dark lores”, and “weak, dark ‘mustache'”. The October date seems a little problematic for Illinois for a Chipping Sparrow, at least based on the Sibley range map, and this bird really doesn’t look much like any Chipping Sparrow I’ve ever seen, but on the whole I’ve got more and bigger issues with any of the other possible IDs.

    I’m curious to find out what it is! 🙂

  3. #3 Lori
    November 30, 2009

    I too think it is the Chipping Sparrow based on the eye ring. But I think the colour on top of his head is a tad off.

  4. #4 lectric lady
    November 30, 2009

    The eye ring is incomplete, ruling out the field sparrow. I’ll go with adult nonbreeding chipping sparrow.

  5. #5 psweet
    November 30, 2009

    John, a quick check of the Meadowlark (Illinois Ornithological Society’s journal) shows typical late dates for Chipping Sparrow in northern Illinois to be early to mid- November. Clay-colored departs a bit earlier, and mid-October is a typical arrival date for American Tree Sparrow.

  6. #6 David
    November 30, 2009


    American Tree Sparrow, Spizella arborea, which would have two white wingbars and a bicolored bill (black above, yellowish below);

    Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla, because it does not have a black eye-stripe and would have an unstreaked breast;

    Clay-colored, Spizella pallida, which would have a white supercilium, (a brown rather than gray rump), a paler face, a more distinct white stripe to the crown, and a dark tip to the bill;

    Brewer’s Sparrow, Spizella breweri, which would have a grey-brown back, plain grey breast, a pale bill with a dark tip, no grey in the nape;

    Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, although the rust on the upperparts is subdued in Winter, the dark line through the eye does not originate between eye and bill, and in the usual grey underparts are distinctly buff;

    so… Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina: Winter coloring is subdued, buff brown, with darkly streaked upperparts, grey below; the cap is also subdued in Winter, more brown than red because of the dark brown streaking (as per Paul Sweet 11/5); pink bill.

    I too, have read that range may be problematic, as all 5 of the above species have ranges that include Illinois but that the Chipping Sparrow is usually only found in warmer months.

    The Illinois Ornithological Society records that American Tree, Clay-colored, Chipping, Swamp, and Field Sparrows are all “regular species” (for which there are records in at least eight of the past ten years) with Brewer’s “accidental”; the Clay-colored does not breed there regularly (bred at least once in the past 50 years, but not currently breeding); and only Chipping, Swamp, and Field breed regularly in the state (at least eight of the last ten years or 40 or more of the last 50 years).

    In the end, having found a couple of recent anecdotal references to winter Chippings in Illinois, the field markings would indeed support this as a Chipping Sparrow, Spizella passerina.

  7. #7 psweet
    November 30, 2009

    Nice bit of research, David. Chipping, Swamp, and Field are all common breeders where this bird was photographed, and Trees are common winterers. Clay-colored is an uncommon to rare migrant, and a rare breeder (I’m not sure how well documented beyond the Winnebago Co. record, but it is known to occur in summer occasionally, and I’ve found them in summertime in appropriate habitat). Chipping Sparrow is routinely reported on CBC’s in Illinois — how often they really are Chippings is a matter of some debate. On the other hand, at least a few of them have been photographed.

  8. #9 David
    December 1, 2009

    aarrgghh! HTML!

    let me try the third example again:

    winter American Tree Sparrow, South Dakota

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