Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Harris's Sparrow Mystery Part Two

Once it was realized that the plains states were only the Harris's Sparrow's winter home, the quest was on to find out where they really did nest. Several theories were published until Edward A. Preble found breeding pairs at Churchill, Canada in 1902. The famous naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, in 1908, found the species common from Great Slave Lake northward to the edge of the Barren Grounds, and discovered a nest with young almost ready to leave on August 5th. Because the sparrows breed in such a remote area, they were one of the last North American song birds to have their nests discovered.

Their nests are shallow hollows in the ground, lined with grasses or, occasionally, caribou hair. .Most clutches consist of four eggs; average clutch sizes are higher in the northern part of the species’ breeding range.

By 1929 the young George Miksch ( pronounced, " mix " ) Sutton had established himself as an extraordinary bird artist. So much, that he was hired as the assistant curator of the Carnegie Museum. He was also receiving several commisions for his artwork. His bird studies also earned him great respect Among the ornithology community. In 1925 he accepted the position as Pennsylvania's State Ornithologist.

In 1929 George resigned from his position as state ornithologist to prepare for a trip to South Hampton Island, Canada with the purpose of finding the nesting ground of the Blue Goose. South Hampton Island lies just south of the arctic circle near the western mouth Hudson's Bay and is now part of Canada's Nunavut Territory. It has a rocky tundra landscape with elevations of almost 2000 feet and level areas that are almost sea level. Amid the harsh climate and frigid conditions, Sutton's party was indeed succesful at finding the nesting area of the Blue Geese.

In 1931 George headed north again. This time to Churchill with a party to discover the Harris's Sparrows eggs. Nearly a century had passed since it was discovered and the bird's eggs had yet to be seen.
The region was almost inaccessible during the nesting season. The completion of the railway to Fort Churchill finally made travelling there much easier. When they arrived at Churchill May 25 they found 2 feet of snow on the level and drifts 20 feet deep. Temperatures ranged from 28° F. to about 60° F. during the day. They first observed Harris' sparrows there on May 27. "By June 7, we had at least thirty pairs more or less definitely located in an area of five square miles; we had not, however, witnessed a single action indicative of nest building."

However, to their surprise, they made a starling surprise. A Canadian team of ornithologists with the very same goal was camped nearby.

Next time part three or scholars with pots and pans.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Harris's Sparrow Mystery

A true story involving an artist, Audubon, a prince, Canadians, and pots and pans.

Part one

By the early 1930's, much was know about most North American song birds. Their ranges and life histories had been documented by many ornithologists . Yet, the Harris's Sparrow remained surrounded in mystery.

The Harris's Sparrow is an attractive bird decorated with a black throat badge, black head, and a buff chest mottled with black streaks. The males and females are similar looking and are larger than most sparrows. They have an interesting habit of digging in the grass and dirt looking for seeds, insects, pine needles, and spiders.
On their wintering grounds, flocks of Harris’s Sparrows have definite social hierarchies, in which dominant birds control access to preferred roosts and feeding sites. Status of male birds in hierarchies is in proporton to their body size. For immature birds in their first winter, status is linked to the extent of black plumage on the throat and upper chest. For some unknown reason, sightings of the birds have been slightly dwindling adding further unknowns about them.

The sparrow was not recorded until 1834 partly because of its narrow range that sweeps from the Dakotas, across the central plains, and down to Texas.

Two different parties of explorers discovered the species within two weeks and a few miles from one another and even in its early history, the bird's correct name was something of a mystery. On a westward trip across Missouri, Thomas Nuttall collected a bird on Apr. 28, 1834, that he subsequently named the "Mourning Finch," Fringella querula. 15 days later on May 13th, Maximilian, Prince of Wied, while exploring the west, was attracted to migrating flocks of the sparrows in southeastern Nebraska. The bird received yet a second name when he later named it, " Fringilla comata."

In 1843, while travelling up the Missouri River by steamboat, John James Audubon and his good friend Edward Harris, saw the bird for the first time near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Harris collected specimens and Audubon, not knowing it had already been discovered and named twice, included it in his 1843 octavo edition of his Birds of America and gave it the name, Fringilla harrisii in honor of his dear friend Harris. ( In an example of their great friendship, Harris once gave Audubon $100.00 dollars saying, "someone like you should not want for money. " ) Now the sparrow sported three names but while Nuttall's name for the sparrow preceded Audubon's, the common name, Harris's Sparrow was the one that stuck.

By1900 the Harris's Sparrow's distribution was well-know. At first, it was believed its permanent home was across the United States. Later, it was realized that the birds were actually migrating but from where, no one knew.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

KIndle for Birders

Here are some infomative and entertaining ebooks for birders with Kindles. I have about half of these on my Kindle but they all have good reviews.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

I've long wondered why many ornithologists are also artists. The natural sciences attract artists or inspire creativity more than any other discipline. Many ornithologists are as well known for their art as for their research and scientific publications.

For some ornithologists, the art came after the science. Perhaps, after a point, words were not an efficient way to describe birds. Maybe the beauty of birds inspired creativity. However, for most, art and bird study were dual interests that usually began at an early age.

Every birder has heard of John James Audubon or Roger Tory Peterson I would like acquaint you with two ornithologists who are excellent artists but maybe not as well known. They both deserve more space than this blog can provide.

George Miksch Sutton
holds a special place in my bird watcher's heart. His illustrated book
Fifty Common Birds of Oklahoma and the Southern Great Plain was one my first books about birds long ago.

George was born in Bethany, Nebraska in1898. Until his death in 1982 he was Professor Emeritus at the University of Oklahoma. He is considered the most prominent ornithologist of his time. He published 201 journal articles and 13 books.

His interest in art and birds began when he was five years old. He published his first bird drawing when he was 12. By age 16, George had published articles in The Oologist and Bird-Lore.

In 1915 he began corresponding with the great nature artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. He later published his correspondence as To a Young Bird Artist, a book that should be read by every bird artist.

In 1918, George began work at the Carnegie Museum, in charge of the egg collection. In 1925, George left Carnegie to become State Ornithologist for Pennsylvania. While there, he defended birds of prey from hunters. in 1952 he was named Professor of Zoology at the University of Oklahoma.

Some of his many books are, Bird Student an Autobiography, At a Bend in a Mexican River, Birds Worth Watching, Birds of Pennsylvania, and Baby Birds.

Olivia Bouler is a very talented and special young lady.
At age 11 she was very saddened by the horrible oil spill along the gulf coast, a place she often visited. She knew she had to help in some way.

She wrote a letter to the National Audubon Society suggesting her fund raising idea, offering to sell her art work for donations to help the gulf oil spill recovery.. She donated 500 original paintings and has since raised
close to $200,000 to aid the cleanup.

Olivia even visited her representatives in Washington, to express her concern over the gulf and was named a Hometown Hero by Congressman Steve Israel. She was also named ASPCA Kid of The Year, Kohl's Cares National Winner, Artist Inspiring Conservation Award by the Audubon Society, and a Champion of Change by the White House.

Her bird paintings are a pure delight, full of beauty and freshness that only such a talented young woman could create. Her passion for birds is obvious. She is an inspired artist, dedicated, and a darn good saxophone player.

 You can see her and her artwork at her website at She recently published her illustrated book,
book, Olivia's Birds, Saving the Gulf,