August 2020

Vol. 48, No. 4

About Books: Sparrows: Above and Beyond "LBJs"

Soheil Zendeh, guest reviewer

Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America. Rick Wright. 2019. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

What is exquisite to me – say, an Ipswich Sparrow – may be just a blur of tans and grays to you. Or you might think the classic elegance of a Greater Yellowlegs or a juvenile Bonaparte's Gull is somehow plainer than the splash of a Blackburnian Warbler. Or maybe you don't often see the variety and plenitude of sparrows, gulls, or shorebirds and have no chance to become familiar with them.

Here is a book that can bridge the gap between aesthetics and human interest. Do not come looking for range maps or wing length data. Rick Wright has spent a lifetime looking at American sparrows in addition to other birds. The "human history [of birds]," he says, "is made up not just of facts and measurements but of stories" – lots of stories. More than seventy separate essays in this book give accounts of the variety of North American sparrows, their discovery by ornithologists, and their naming.

In the first chapter he describes and defines what this grouping of birds is and how it might fit in with other groups and families. First of all, he deals with the term "sparrow." He describes how New World birds got their English names. By and large, English-speaking colonists were not naturalists and had only the vaguest notion of what native birds of Europe looked like. Thus, our large, orange-breasted thrush, closely related to the Eurasian black thrush (simply called Blackbird by the English), came to be named "robin" because the old world Robin had an orange breast also. Never mind that it was about a third of the size, a completely different shape, and only distantly related to the American bird. Similarly, small streaked brown birds came to be called "sparrows" after the House Sparrow of Europe, though they were only distantly related. "The New World birds," explains Wright, "…go by a muddling variety of English names, including ‘sparrow,' ‘towhee,' ‘bunting,' and ‘junco.'" These American sparrows, Passerellidae, are restricted to the Western Hemisphere; their closest relatives in the Old World are the Emberizid buntings.

Illustrations in this book are stunningly beautiful and gorgeously reproduced photographs of the subject birds from a variety of photographers in the Americas. Wright gives verbal descriptions and identification tips. Reading this book, you feel you are traveling the continent with a vastly informed and patient guide who tells stories about these birds, the ornithologists who first described them, and the convolutions that their names, both English and scientific, have been through, the species and genus divisions, the confusions and misunderstandings – so many stories.

Species Accounts

Wright deals with more divisions than simply "species." He prefers to deal with "kinds" of birds. For example, there are many kinds of "Savannah" sparrows in the genus Passerculus. Several have been known as separate species in the past but are now lumped in as Savannah Sparrows. A bird that winters in southern California, collected in 1852 by Adolphus L. Heerman and delivered to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, was named Large-billed Sparrow, Emberiza rostratus. For sixty years its breeding range was unknown until it was finally discovered to breed south of its known winter range, in Mexico at the mouth of the Colorado River. (Later on, the bird was also found to winter west and south of this area, in Baja California.) In time, the genus name of the bird was changed to Passerculus. In 1944 Passerculus rostratus was merged with three other "species" into Savannah Sparrow, P. sandwichensis. Wright's comment about this merger is essentially a motto for the book: "…whether each kind is considered a species or a subspecies group, ignoring those differences, whatever their ultimate scientific significance, flattens nuance and discourages the collection of knowledge."

He expresses similar thoughts on the lumping of Oregon and Dark-eyed juncos. He points out that since Oregon Juncos were demoted to subspecies level, there has been a vast drop-off in the number of Oregon Junco reports. Incidentally, he also points out that Oregon Junco is not a single subspecies but a group of subspecies, some of them with disjoint ranges. The details – oh yes, they're complicated and confusing.

Wright spends just over 40 pages on 10 kinds of juncos. It is clear the juncos fascinate him but also frustrate him as they do most who have tried to separate out and describe them. For example, he goes into great detail regarding Junco connectens, "a bird whose identity and affinities remained a subject of debate for more than 40 years after it was originally described – and for a full quarter century after it was proved to not exist..

He has 15 pages on four types of Fox Sparrow (Passerella species) and 39 pages on the variety of towhees. He also covers several Mexican species, some like the Bridled Sparrow, Peucaea mystacalis, whose breeding details (including eggs) were unknown until 2001. He also includes others like the brushfinches (Arremon), which we don't ordinarily think of as "sparrows."

The Ornithologists

For reasons both historical and cultural, men are the main ornithological figures in Wright's accounts. Headed by the well-known John James Audubon, Alexander Wilson, and Robert Ridgway, a dozen or so men are the primary actors, but several dozen naturalists crisscrossed North America in the 18th,19th, and 20th centuries to discover the wealth of wildlife that is clearly among the glories of the continent.

Wright loves to trace the naming of our birds. He has a long story about the discovery of "Lincoln Sparrow" (his preferred name instead of Lincoln's Sparrow; there is a dissertation about the use of apostrophed possessives in his opening chapter). Thomas Lincoln was a 21-year-old assistant to John James Audubon when he collected an unknown "finch" during an 1833 expedition to Labrador. Lincoln was close friends with Audubon's son, John Woodhouse, also on the expedition. The new bird was described and named Lincoln's Finch, Fringilla lincolnii. Later, of course, the genus name was changed to Melospiza, but the species name remains, honoring the young man so beloved of the Audubons, père and fils.

The last new bird Audubon described and painted was Baird's Sparrow, among the most obscure of obscure American sparrows. He and his companions heard the songs on a buffalo-hunting expedition on the banks of the upper Missouri River (Montana) in 1843, chased down the birds through tall grass, and collected three. Audubon thereafter named the bird after a 20-year-old rising star of ornithology, the Philadelphian Spencer F. Baird.

Audubon also named Henslow's Sparrow, this time after a Cambridge (England) botany professor whose most illustrious student had been Charles Darwin. Audubon remembered the professor for his kindness while he resided in England.

James William Abert's reputation has survived in the name of several animals from the American west: Abert's Towhee and Abert's squirrel come to mind. But who was he? Says Wright, "The military parties exploring the American West in the mid-nineteenth century included a startlingly disproportionate number of polymath geniuses. James William Abert, watercolorist, engineer, naturalist, soldier, and literature professor was among them…" Beginning in 1845, Abert accompanied other explorers in the southwest and sent back to the aforementioned Baird in Philadelphia a large and varied selection of new mammals and birds. As it turns out, Wright points out, there is no evidence that Abert ever saw the towhee named after him; he may never have even ventured within its range. The mutilated specimen that reached Baird was perhaps slipped into the Abert shipment by another of the explorers in his company.

Wright recounts, in exhaustive details, the squabbles among ornithologists. Sometimes these quarrels are over naming rights, occasionally over discovery bragging rights, but also, surprisingly, often over descriptions of details of plumage based on imperfect specimens. A lot of description and naming of birds was done by museum men who had received specimens from field collectors. The material collected in the field, even if prepared and shipped correctly, was often months in transit. Sometimes a specimen was discovered years later after being ignored. In 1855, for example, a German ornithologist by the name of Gustav Hartlaub accused his colleague Charles Bonaparte of having misidentified a previously unidentified species of towhee in the Leiden museum. Hartlaub said Bonaparte's naming of the specimen, Pipilo variegatus, was careless. Bonaparte's immediate response was to accuse Hartlaub of inattention and inability to distinguish Siberian birds from northwestern North American birds. And so it went.

Harriet Williams Myers, a founder of the California Audubon Society, is among the few women who figure in the narrative of discovery, naming, and description of American birds. Beginning toward the end of the 19th century and through the first half of the 20th, she photographed, wrote, and distributed articles and books on western birds. She originated the phrase "plaintive, yet liquid, dear, dear, dear" to describe the calls of the Rufous-crowned Sparrow, a description that is considered standard now. Evidently Myers came up with that description on the afternoon of April 10, 1909, while watching those sparrows build a nest in the foothills of a California mountain range near her home.


Sparrows, gulls, shorebirds – birders turn the page quickly. As one friend told me a long time ago, "I need to see colors." But never mind the aesthetics. Do pay attention to the history, and let a master historian and story-teller take you through the tales of American sparrows. You don't need to read these accounts in sequence. These are stories that cover many facets of exploration, history, ecology, and biology.

It's a conversation with a knowledgeable and erudite raconteur who uses the kind of language you can expect in dry works of ornithology; but Wright can also tell a tale. This makes his book well worth a read.

Additional Material

Rick Wright has placed much additional information (measurements, summary of taxonomic history, references, full bibliography) in his website

Soheil Zendeh, born in Tehran, grew up in Tehran and Tangier, Morocco, arrived in Cambridge in 1961 as a college freshman, and later started an auto repair shop first in Cambridge, then in Watertown. He began birding in 1973, never got a good look at the Newburyport Ross's Gull, got sick of driving to the North Shore for birds, and began checking out local Boston spots in 1975. Since 2009 he has been guiding bird tours at Bear Creek Sanctuary in Saugus. Soheil lives in Lexington with his wife Christine.

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