Our Other Immigrant Sparrow

Everyone is familiar with House Sparrows, right? Even non-birds must be aware of them since the pestiferous little bastards are everywhere.

North America’s first encounter with this species took place in Brooklyn in the early 1850s. A number of birds were released in the hope that they would stop an outbreak of linden moth caterpillars. But intentionally introducing these bird led to unintentional consequences. Oh, were there consequences.

Accustomed to living in proximity to humans, adaptable, and aggressive, those first birds thrived and spread. Supplemented by later releases in San Francisco and Salt Lake City, they soon occupied the entire continent excluding northern-most Canada.

But we have another introduced sparrow, one that is probably unknown outside the birder’s circle. This bird, the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, was introduced in April 1870. Twelve birds (or twenty, depending on where you get your information) from Germany were released in St. Louis’ Lafayette Park. This was part of a misguided effort improve the native bird life and provide a “familiar face” to the large immigrant population, homesick for the old country.

Despite being much less aggressive than the House Sparrow, those twelve birds still managed to establish a breeding population, albeit on a much smaller scale. There are now about 15,000 of them, mostly in the St. Louis area but also spreading north along the Mississippi River into Iowa and Illinois. Ironically, when the House Sparrow reached St. Louis, they drove their more timid cousins from the downtown area and they now occupy mainly residential and rural areas. 

House Sparrows are the obnoxious neighbors with the loud truck, louder music, and drunken parties. The ones that take a piss on your prize roses. Meanwhile, Eurasian Tree Sparrows are the quiet, polite neighbors whose presence you barely notice. Unlike the House Sparrow, their environmental impacts have been minimal, causing little or no damage to native bird populations. For those reasons, I can accept them alongside our native birds, while I detest House Sparrows.

I photographed both birds pictured here at the Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary in St. Charles, north of St. Louis. The first photo is the very first frame of a Eurasian Tree Sparrow I ever shot and I really like the image. The bird was next to the Riverlands’ Visitor Center where I found him under brutal conditions.

It was 10°, but the wind chill was 20 degrees colder and even dressed warmly, I could only endure for 10-15 minutes before returning to the car. The wind and cold made my eyes water, which ran down my face before freezing in my mustache, along with the condensation from my breath. This despite wearing sunglasses and a balaclava. It was fantastic weather if you were a Polar Bear or just like freezing your noogies off, and I’m in no hurry to repeat the experience!



Snow Bird


One evening in early February, I filled the bird feeders one last time before the day faded into darkness. Cold gripped the Ozarks and the birds would appreciate the easy calories. On a lark, I sat in the truck, using it for a blind to wait for my customers to return. As the minutes passed, snow began to fall, but strangely, no birds came back to the feeders. They usually come pouring back from the trees as soon as I walk back towards the house.

Finally, just before I called it quits, I saw movement in the Eastern Redcedar at the yard’s edge. A Fox Sparrow materialized in the brush next to the Redcedar, then another and a third. The snow fell more heavily and the light deteriorated even further, but I shot a few photos anyway. Had I been shooting film, I would have passed on the opportunity, but digital costs nothing and I shot away.

The photos were dark and noisy. Brightening the image created even more noise. I almost discarded my work at this point but decided to run a de-noise filter first. And I’m glad I did. The falling snow and painterly feel combined to create a rather attractive image. At least I think so. I’ll take all the Happy Accidents I can get.

White-tailed Goldfinch

Does this goldfinch look odd to you?
I know goldfinches’ tails are white with black terminal markings, but this one seems to have a lot of white. I keep waffling back and forth on whether I’m overreacting by calling him leucistic (a genetic mutation that causes melanin pigments to become washed out and pale) or if there is a more prosaic explanation.
Still, I’ve watched hundreds, if not thousands, of goldfinches at feeders over the years and this bird stands out, so I don’t think I’m making something from nothing. This bird’s tail is abnormally white.
The yellow on the rump is normally more pronounced but it’s faded and hard to see here. The black areas at the end of the tail are usually more extensive as well. This missing black is the real reason the tail looks so damned white to me.
Compare his tail with this one from a “typical” goldfinch.
This one has more black, but it’s hard to say for sure because the wings cover a significant part of the tail when folded back like that.
So, let’s break this down:
  • The bird in question is molting (look at his forehead.) My first thought was that the molting process was causing the tail to look so white. But once I learned that goldfinches don’t replace their wing or tail feathers during their spring molt, I tossed that hypothesis.
  • Our bird also holds his wings in a very loose, drooping posture, where most goldfinches keep them folded across the back, In fact, I couldn’t find a single photo of a goldfinch holding its wings in this way. But even in in-flight photos, with the tail exposed, none have tails that look that white. This posture does allow more of the white part of the tail to be seen. But that doesn’t account for the reduced black at the end of the tail.
  • That brings us to the possibility of leucism. All the leucistic goldfinches I’ve found online have been affected over a larger area of the body, usually from the neck down, but including the head on occasion. I did, however, find one account of a bird with a white patch on the top of his head and no other abnormal coloring. I also found other species of birds with leucism that only had white tails and they looked similar to what we have here.
  • According to Feederwatch, occasionally a bird will lose feathers in a close call with a predator. When this happens the new feathers sometimes grow in white and then change back to the normal color at the next regular molt. This kind of white coloring looks like leucism but is not and most often happens in the tail, causing a bird that lost its tail feathers to a predator to have an all white tail. that’s not the case here since our bird doesn’t have an all white tail, instead still having black in reduced amounts.
So where does that leave us? Despite the fact that leucism isn’t that common—Feederwatch has recorded 1600 cases from 5.5 million birds—I believe this bird is partially leucistic. Unless I’m missing something, the evidence seems to point in this direction. If any of my half-dozen readers (you can’t hide, I know you’re out there) have another take, I’d be thrilled to hear from you.



Pale Rider

Dayna and I were passing Willow Springs on our way to Springfield, when I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk on the roadside. This happens a lot when we’re traveling and most of the time we continue without stopping. However, if a bird is close to the road, in a good spot to try for a photo or is an unusual color phase, we’ll turn back and “work” it.

This bird was in a tree, high above the road on an embankment. Facing east into the morning sun, her breast shone like a beacon. As we passed, I could see that her underside appeared unmarked and I was sure I saw a white head. Hoping she was a Krider’s, a pale morph of the eastern subspecies of Red-tail, I had Dayna take the Hwy 76 exit and go back.

Dayna pulled the car to the shoulder, distant enough that I didn’t think she would skedaddle. I usually try to get a few shots from a “safe” distance, then work my way closer if the bird will permit it. This way I at least have an image or two to document the bird.

She was wary though, even by Red-tail standards, and bailed as we came to a stop.

She zipped across the road (divided, 4-lanes) and landed in a tree. I managed a few shots as she passed, all blurry and out of focus. Still, they were good enough to confirm that her head was white and that her tail appeared to be white or maybe pink. This was looking good if I could find a way to get a decent shot.

A second bird joined her, this one more typically colored and noticeably smaller. This is why I’ve been calling the first bird “she,” since female Red-tails are larger than males. They played a short game of chase, then against all odds, the first bird flew back to our side of the road and began circling.

As she soared round, slowly gaining altitude, I shot over a hundred photos. To say that I’m very disappointed in the photo quality would be an understatement. I had excellent light and was shooting at a high shutter speed (1/2500th of a second.) This combination usually produces good results. But the bird wasn’t quite close enough and someone— who shall remain nameless to protect the stupid—forgot to turn off the lens’ Vibration Control. This feature is fabulous if you’re trying to hand-hold your camera and photograph non-moving objects. But if you’re trying to track a flying bird, it tries to compensate for your movement as you so. This is not a good thing.

Therefore, we have crappy photos to look at. But they’re good enough to serve my purposes here. Field marks and plumage coloring are all visible and that’s the important thing.

So was she was a Kriders? I compared her field marks with those listed in Wheeler’s book:

  • White face and throat ✓
  • Partial dark collar ✓
  • Belly and legs clean, almost unmarked ✓
  • Brown patagial marks (the stretch of skin on the leading edge of the wing) ✓
  • Barred wing feathers ✓
  • Dark fingers ✓
  • Dark band on the rear of the wings ✓
  • Pale, near-white tail with a thin, dark sub-terminal band ✓

Those are all close matches, so I believe she was a Krider’s Hawk. The thing that confuses me though, is that she and the second hawk seemed to be together, a mated paired. This, in itself, isn’t odd. It’s March and Red-tails should be paired and preparing to nest. But according to Wheeler, Krider’s Hawks only breed in the Dakotas, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and adjacent Canadian provinces. I don’t know about you, but I can’t find southern Missouri in that description.

So maybe she isn’t a Krider’s. Goodness knows there’s enough variation in Red-tail plumage that she could simply be a lighter morph without being an actual Krider’s. Maybe she is a Krider’s, breeding outside of the expected range. Or maybe she and the other bird weren’t together after all.

I don’t have any clear-cut answers, but when you’re dealing with nature, there often aren’t any. I finally accepted that some time ago, but I still don’t have to like it.

If the weather is decent this coming weekend, I plan to go back to see if I can relocate her. I want another chance to see if I can’t get better photos and redeem myself. I know I’d feel a lot better if I could.



  • Hawkwatch International. “Red-tailed Hawk.” Accessed March 6, 2018.
  • Tallman, Dan. “Red-tailed Hawk Identification.” South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union. Accessed March 6, 2018.
  • Wheeler, B. K. 2003. Raptors of Western North America.Princeton Univ. Press. Princeton, NJ U.S.A.

The Serendipitous Pipit

When Dayna and I go to Otter Slough, we enter and leave through Dudley. But on our last trip, we searched the fallow crop fields to the west, looking for the Short-eared Owl reported there in January.
We didn’t find the owl, though there were plenty of Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows. While trying to photograph a small flock of larks, this guy popped out of the roadside ditch and posed for us.

I was hoping to find a Lapland Longspur mixed with the larks, but I hadn’t even considered finding a Pipit. I hadn’t seen one in the area before though I know they are regular visitors (there are eBird reports for most years). I didn’t have a photo of one before, so the unexpected opportunity tickled the crap out of me.

They’re not colorful, but they are photogenic if only subtly so. I watched this one for less than a minute before he took flight and disappeared, headed for the far side of the field.
I’m sure I’ve run into them before and overlooked them. I tend to ignore the little brown and gray birds on the ground and focus my attention on the raptors. But now that they’re on my radar, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for them.