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.