Product of Misguided Love – A Valentine’s Day Tale

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

It was Valentine’s Day, and my wife and I had just begun a walk around the neighborhood to count birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count.  We didn’t even make it out of the yard.  No, unfortunately, it is not what you are thinking…

I saw a bird among a flock of sparrows that didn’t register in my brain.  “What the *&@%is that!”, I thought.  It looked like a White-throated Sparrow, but it wasn’t quite right.  Was it some rare species from out west?  A genetic mutant?  I had to find out.  I camped out near our bird feeder with my camera and let the birds settle back down.  In a short while the bird came to the feeder for seed, and I took lots of pictures.  I still didn’t know what it was, so I posted photos of it for birders in PA and DE to see and send me their comments.

This strange visitor to my yard is on the right.  It was hanging out with some White-throated Sparrows.  What in the world was it?  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
This strange visitor to my yard is on the right. It was hanging out with some White-throated Sparrows. What in the world was it? Photo by Joe Sebastiani
The responses started coming back to me.  Most people suggested that it was a hybrid, which is what I was leaning towards.  It had some White-throated Sparrow genes in it for sure, but what was it mixed with?
The back of this bird looks like a normal White-throated Sparrow, but the head and bill aren't right for that species.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
The back of this bird looks like a normal White-throated Sparrow, but the head and bill aren't right for that species. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

Jeffrey Gordon, a professional birder in Delaware responded to my inquiry, suggesting that it was most likely a hybrid between a White-throated Sparrow and a Dark-eyed Junco.  One question that remained for him…did the tail have white outer edges like a Junco?  I went back through the 100 or so photos I took of this bird and found one that showed the tail.

Notice the outer white tail feathers on the mystery bird as it takes off.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
Notice the outer white tail feathers on the mystery bird as it takes off. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

This clinched the identification of a White-throated Sparrow X Dark-eyed Junco hybrid.  Try to picture this bird’s parents on the breeding grounds.  What were they thinking???

"I love White-throated Sparrows."
"I love White-throated Sparrows"

Apparently, Juncos and White-throated Sparrows have taken a liking to one another before.  Hybrids between these species have been documented many times in the past, but are still quite rare.  There is even a drawing of one on page 494 of The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley.  I found the drawing below which is spot-on for the hybrid I found in my yard on Valentine’s Day. 

White-throated Sparrow X Dark-eyed Junco hybrid.  Witmer Stone.  1893.  American Ornithologists Union.  Photo from www.jstor.org
White-throated Sparrow X Dark-eyed Junco hybrid. Witmer Stone. 1893. American Ornithologists Union. Image from www.jstor.org

1 thought on “Product of Misguided Love – A Valentine’s Day Tale”

  1. Quite an incredible sighting and followup! I followed your discussion on De-Birds and found it extremely interesting. Not sure too many birders would have been able to distinguish ‘your’ sparrow for all the rest! Great job Joe!

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