19 June 2015

Beautiful Hawks Raise Young Among Urban Carthage

An appreciated duo of beautiful Red-tailed Hawks living amidst the completely urban scape of Carthage, successfully raised two young this year.

Images courtesy of Greg Green, Omaha Public Works.

The fledglings have left the nest place and have been seen perched in nearby and elsewhere during these mid-days of June. Pesky robins and grackles loudly voice a discordant perspective on the presence of a raptor family in the neighborhood. The hawks are pretty much oblivious to the complaints of the songbirds.

Noted events for these special urban hawks include the first date when they brought twigs to initiate a nest nearly atop a pine tree just north of Izard Street, by the 48th avenue. That date was February 27, 2015. A bit later, the two could be seen perched upon snags of a couple nearby dead trees, keeping a close look upon the place of their future. The tree place was decidedly suitable, as mating activity was observed on March 10th and 14th. The dynamic duo were then homebound as nest cares were necessary, with their breeding legacy focused on a couple of eggs. As parents they gave great care while listening to loud vehicular traffic, emergency vehicle sirens, the early-morning discord of trash haulers and a complete myriad of disphonic sounds. Thankfully no one within the ethnic mix choose to thwart the pair!

The hawks were above it all. During snow, cold and winds, they endured. Early on some mornings, with one of the pair attentive in a tree nearby the nest, their presence was something any bird-watcher could appreciate ... once and again and more times. Some birds in Omaha have press agents, but for the Carthage hawks, they had a watcher, or two, perhaps more, with sufficient attentive interest, and that was enough to know.

Young growing were a glorious sight on some known days in mid-May while crouched or standing at flattened nest, flapping their new wings as appropriate and anticipating a flighty departure. They would soon go away into a new, larger world.

On June 8th, both young had definitely left the nest. A couple of adjacent snag trees had branches where the family could perch. When seen one evening during this time in June, the young looked great as they preened their feathers. On the 15th, one well seen youngster was looking about the hood, while perched atop a house's roof, only a short distance from their now forgotten home of twigs. A fledgling was seen within a block or two of the nest site on the 18th. Both were seen within a half block early on the morning of the 19th. One on a roof and the other perched among the leafy branches of a tree.

It was an undeniably good year for these hawks. They selected a suitable site for a fine nest atop an apartment lot pine. There were no disruptive activities to chase them away. Ample food of various types was available around their foraging range within the city of Omaha. And the young are now grown enough to thrive to continue the hawk's way.

It has been so special to have an opportunity to appreciate and observe hawks dwelling within the neighborhood! Even when they were not seen, just knowing of their presence enough of a because of the vivid reality of a pair of hawks nesting within the block.

Hawks soaring above the streets. One day one of them was seen eating a grackle atop a utility pole on north 49th Street. Conversations here and there have conveyed a appreciation of the mighty birds. How they continue to be a part of the bird life in the area is their choice? They have certainly been a highlight for many past weeks. To be able to see a hawk nest from a home window is certainly something to appreciate, especially while within an urban jungle!

Comment: Some Illustrations of the Townsend's Bunting

Mathew Louis, June 16, 2015

Having previously written for Wildbirds Broadcasting a recent piece (June 4, "The Identity of Townsend's Bunting"), I have examined a few more sources which include illustrations of the subject and will comment, these points contributing to the discussion as well as reinforcing my arguments. Four additional publications, all published or cited in recent years relating to the Townsend's Bunting, deserve consideration.

**** Audubon, The Watercolors for The Birds of America (Blaugrund & Stebbins, eds.), 1993. This includes the two original watercolor portraits Audubon prepared before creating the plate for Emberiza townsendi. One is a cut-out applied to a page including other figured birds, the specimen posed much as it would appear in the final product. The other is a study of the type in three poses; the lower figure shows a crown with what appear to be scattered streaks. (As I noted in my aforementioned piece, the Lark Bunting's crown has scattered streaking whereas immature Dickcissels reveal even rows of streaks.) Also see Audubon's Aviary (Olson, ed., 2012).

Relating to the discussion in the next work I cite, it is important to stress that Audubon painted his from a fresh type, this a bird with no yellow coloration, especially on the supercilium and malar areas (which are white in his bird), thus removing the possibility that the Townsend's Bunting type in its original state may have had yellow feathers which later faded.

Links with image examples of these:


**** "Audubon's Mystery Birds." Kenneth Parkes in Natural History (94: 92).

Parkes discusses the type specimen of the Townsend's Bunting in the U.S. National Museum and argues that it is an aberrantly-colored Dickcissel. Having read it, I find that this argument has some weight, but overall it is not supportable. What Parkes is describing is called a schizochroism, a condition of abnormal plumage color as a result of a lack of a certain pigment; hence in this case Parkes is arguing that that pigment is the Dickcissel's yellow, resulting, in this case, in a more gray-colored bird. Schizochroism yields a different color than normal. Given that I am arguing that the Townsend's is a Dickcissel x Lark Bunting hybird, an explanation may truly concern the colors of the Lark Bunting, a bird in which the male in breeding plumage is a stunning black with white wing panels; it is the blackest of the North American sparrows.

I would describe the Townsend's type differently. As the hybridization preserves characters of both species, I suspect that a cross will result in a hybrid with an increase of eumelanin resulting in a darker bird--the "common" melanistic or eumelanic trait, but a phenomenon which does not force questions, which I propose here, of inconsistency that an aberrant coloration argument produces. ("[I]n a eumelanistic bird, the amount of phaeomelanin remains normal but through the increase of eumelanin concentration, the phaeomelanin will not or be hardly visible." Dutch Birding, 28: 88.) Parkes' singles the Dickcissel's yellow pigment above its other colors, and this is problematic as the Townsend's type does not consistently show the "schizochroism" in areas of its plumage where it would be expected. A schizochroism can, from my understanding, be understood by analogy: the plate [39] of Carbo perspicillatus in Extinct Birds (Rothschild, 1907). In this plate, by John Gerrard Keulemans, the cormorant's orbital ring was incorrectly colored red, the same color as its gular skin. In context, the white part was substituted, and in a schizochroism, an analogously similar switch of pigment should result. All yellow feathers might become white or some other color, or all green areas might become blue (in a case of an axanthic schizochroism), but other patterns and colors, no matter how intricate, would be unaffected. While the Townsend's type has a gray breast and underparts, making it feasible as to how Parkes arrived at such a judgment, its supercilium is unequivocally white. Even in non-breeding plumage and immature plumages, a Dickcissel almost always shows a yellow supercilium, usually with a yellow mark on the malar and, infrequently, yellow along the center area of the throat. Thus, there is an inconsistent correspondence of yellow plumage characters in the Dickcissel appearing in the mystery bird as either gray or white, not just one color. It is not unexpected to find in an aberrant plumage some retention of the typical colorations, but I find it irreconcilable to argue that this pattern in the Townsend's would emerge from a schizochroism, given that so much of the head is gray in color (gray the color replacing the yellow of its breast) but not the superciliary mark nor the malar.

Further, the gray on the underparts is much more uniform and extensive in both examples (the Townsend's and the mystery Ontario bird); a schizochroism should only affect a certain pigment, not affect coloration of feathers peripheral to that part. As my comments will further explain, a schizochroism argument applied to the mystery Ontario bird does not hold either. (Parkes also incorrectly described the Townsend's Bunting type as a female).

The question of another aberrant plumage form, a non-phaeomelanin schizochroism, is worth mention, though this argument cannot be supported. In a melanistic bird, the phaeomelanin is preserved, and if it were not then the Townsend's Bunting might show a subtly darker tone in its brown-colored characters, the wings, back, and tail. Hein van Grouw, quoted above in Dutch Birding, also writes: "[w]hen phaeomelanin is absent (grey), only black-grey and dark brown colours will be visible, the red-brown to yellowish-cream colours having disappeared." Given that the Townsend's has such remarkably inconsistent coloration with what a true aberration would be expected to produce, it would, again, be difficult to see how some yellow areas of an abnormal Dickcissel would be white (superciliary mark, malar) while others dark gray (breast), or while some non-yellow areas are excessively darker (flanks, sides of breast), if this was a non-phaeomelanin schizochroism.

One review of this case (Holt; Cassinia, 70: 24) also draws attention to a source which characterizes male North American Cardinalinae as having a protracted development, and that the Townsend's might be such a case of an abnormal immature plumage. It would be difficult to consider how this phenomenon would be so rare when if, as the author suggests, it is understood among all the North American species of the group. Delayed plumage maturation results in a supposedly gradient variation among males, which would appear in plumages resembling both sexes. To construe the possibility of the same in the Dickcissel, resulting in an aberration like the Townsend's, is worth pondering, but I find it problematical. The Townsend's Bunting does not actually reveal any obvious immature or female-type Dickcissel plumage characters despite Parkes' incorrectly describing the type as a female. Substantiating this argument would require a comparative examination of materials which show variation among immature male Dickcissels.

The Ontario bird does faintly show yellow along its superciliary mark, and shows a small spot of yellow along the malar and a faint mark just below the breast, but even a "partial schizochroism" argument is not supportable as the latter yellow mark begs question as to why the whole of the breast is not dark gray, as well as the question of the excessive amount of dark gray appearing not just on the breast but, closely similar to the Townsend's Bunting, also on the flanks and sides of the neck--areas that should not be affected, as they are not normally yellow in a Dickcissel. The yellow of a typical Dickcissel's underparts is concentrated on the breast, and along the sides of the breast and flanks there is often just a weak yellow blush. In this case, and no less in the case of the Townsend's Bunting, the gray is uniform and extensive across the breast and sides. I am at a loss to understand how this would be a schizochroism given the heavy saturation of the gray on the sides of the breast where the corresponding "affected" yellow color is only weakly present in the feathering in that part. Even more untenable is how the gray leads from the breast to the sides of the neck and face and the malar pattern--this is not a consistent substitution due to the gray concealing much of the white of the sides of the neck that would appear in a typical Dickcissel (leading from the throat, as in the image in Harrison and Greensmith (Birds of the World, Dorling Kindersley, p. 339)). Immature and female plumages, both, in typical birds also show this character. Females usually show a white or pale area at the trailing edge of the malar mark, and males have a throat with a black center. Regardless of the sex of the Ontario bird, both white and yellow feathers are affected by its aberrant condition, and should it have proven be an adult male, its black should also have been affected. Thus, its plumage more likely suggests a melanism from hybridization rather than a schizochroism.

The bird that was photographed in Prince Edward Point Wildlife Area was not sexed. It is difficult to tell if that bird, due to its having some characters markedly different from the Townsend's Bunting, would be the "typical" female hybrid, or another male hybrid with different characters. I tend to favor the second possibility (and suggested it previously) that this is also a male, but it is largely my speculation. As I have noted for the Townsend's, there is likewise nothing to show of female characters of the Dickcissel in this particular bird, and its heavy gray tones suggest a darker, more melanistic individual--the melanism here greater and tending more towards conveying a male Lark Bunting association than in the Townsend's. The black/white wing-coverts of the Ontario bird could suggest an immature male, or, possibly, a female, but it is not readily obvious which sex that character suggests of the Lark Bunting parent. Overall, a hybrid with excessive melanism is represented in both mystery birds. Characters of hybridization are present in both, and due to their Lark Bunting parents possessing the melanistic trait in their makeup, that trait is evidently preserved, in a limited way, in both cases.

**** "Townsend's Bunting in Ontario?" Denis Lepage in Birding (46(4): 30--32 (July/Aug. 2014))


A discussion on the bird photographed by Kyle Blaney on May 14, 2014 is given. The case is based on observation and photographs; the bird was only seen briefly, with nothing to interpret from its behavior or flight pattern, nor was it vocal. Lepage notes that this individual was considered by some to be a hybrid of various species, and he names the Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus, House Sparrow Passer domesticus, and the Sagebrush Sparrow Amphispiza [belli] nevadensis as examples suggested of the identity of the parent. The Sagebrush Sparrow (or Sage Sparrow) is given particular consideration, and an image of one is used for comparison. I do not believe that this Ontario bird adequately, if even closely, suggests characters of the Bobolink or House Sparrow which would approach challenging a Lark Bunting hybird argument.

Likewise, a presumed Sagebrush Sparrow hybrid is not a possibility either. The Sagebrush Sparrow breeds in a limited distribution in the western U.S. states, and, unlike the Dickcissel or Lark Bunting, does not occur in great numbers at any one time to make a hybrid pairing event a likelihood. Taking both the forms belli and nevadensis together (as they were long considered to be representative of a single species, "Sage Sparrow"), the Sage Sparrow's breeding distribution is completely allopatric to the Dickcissel's, and the only area of overlap in non-breeding occurrence (Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America) is an isolated section of southeastern New Mexico, south to Texas and the northern extremes of Chihuahua and Coahuila, where the Dickcissel only occurs as a passing migrant. Measurements (males unless noted) given on page 270 from Ridgway (cited in previous) of a series nevadensis Sage Sparrow are as follows:

Length: 139.70--157.48 (149.61); female 137.16--157.48 (146.81)
Wing: 77.47--81.28
Tail: 70.61--78.49 (74.68); female 67.31--75.69 (71.37)
Exposed culmen: 9.40--10.41 (10.16); female 9.40--10.41 (9.91)
Depth of bill at base: 5.08--5.84; female 5.33--5.84
Tarsus: 20.83--22.61
Middle toe: 12.70--14.73
Ratio of average female exposed culmen to average female length: 1: 14.81

Tail measurements of the other two species in question are also quoted:

Spiza americana
Tail: male 55.12--61.47 (58.17); female 50.04--55.12 (52.07)
Calamospiza melanocorys
Tail: male 65.53--71.12 (68.58), female (60.45--68.58)

At once it is clear that the Sage Sparrow has a remarkably smaller beak than any of the forms in consideration (compare with measurements in previous essay). Beak depth as well as beak length in relation to overall size represent a departure from the measurements and proportions of the Townsend's Bunting, Dickcissel, and Lark Bunting. While the Sage Sparrow's length is close to the Townsend's, its tail is nearly half of that length. Ratios to one of the average female tail to average female length (nevadensis Sage Sparrow: 2.06, Lark Bunting: 2.29, Townsend's Bunting: 2.73, Dickcissel: 2.75) further demonstrate that its proportions remove it from consideration. Its beak is of a uniform blackish color, not at all like the birds in questions. As I previously stressed that the Townsend's Bunting and the Ontario bird, despite their differences, are appreciably similar in appearance to be treated together ("what holds in the identity in the original Townsend's Bunting holds for this more recent example, one and the same"), the arguments derived from a comparison of specimens may have further applicability to this photographed bird. Though it may be larger (or even smaller) than the Townsend's, I feel that the arguments may, in part, especially hold with regards to proportion.

**** Peterson, R. T. (Peterson & Peterson (et al)), Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America (5th edn. (2002)), pp. 318--319. Both the Dickcissel and the Lark Bunting appear together on the same page, placed under the fitting heading, "Miscellaneous Finchlike Birds." Peterson had categorized both species similarly in previous editions of the Field Guide and also in editions of his Western Birds. The Dickcissel and the Lark Bunting may not be closely related, but the former is in itself treated as aberrant (Check-list..., American Ornithologists' Union (1998)) and the other does not seem to have very close affinities to other sparrow genera. In placing them together this way Peterson, however not by intent, allows for an association of the two species that, from my perspective, inadvertently gives the plate new, implicit meaning.

MET Towers Approved for Cherry County

The Cherry County board of commissioners has vote to approve placing two meteorological towers on rangeland of southern Cherry county, west of Highway 83, and north of Thedford.

The conditional use permits requested by Bluestem Sandhills L.L.C. were approved at a public hearing on May 26th, 2015, according to meeting minutes as published in the local newspaper. Commissioner Adamson Storer voted aye, Commissioner Van Winkle abstained and Commissioner Mark Adamson voted aye.
Both motions carried.

A 197 foot tower would be constructed on private property at section 13, T25N R29W and another on Bureau of Educational Lands and Funds (BELF) property at sec. 36, T25N R29W.

Both sites are now prairie grassland, according to aerial photographs. There are 147 wind turbines proposed for the locality, according to FAA details.

A wind lease from the BELF on September 9, 2013 with the Cherry County Wind Energy Association authorized the placement of the met towers on this publicly-owned property, according to a spokesperson for the state agency.

Mark Adamson and Todd Adamson were listed as board members of the CCWEA in a wind conference presentation given in recent years, and as available online. Jerry Adamson was Cherry County Commissioner and voted to appoint members to the wind committee in December 2010.

The Cherry County Wind Energy Association formerly had a website, but a recent search for it was not successful. The group was a partner in construction of a wind turbine west of Valentine, which was dedicated in September 2014.

"Cherry County Wind, LLC has entered into a development agreement with Bluestem Sandhills, LLC, a project company of Bluestem, LLC," according to a May 2014 news article in the Banner-Press.

08 June 2015

Public Project Blocks Pedestrian Passage at Carthage

A storm-water separation project on the north side of Carthage, Omaha, has been completely blocking public access. Construction at the corners of Hamilton Street and North Saddle Creek has resulted in the removal of the entire street and the sidewalks on both side of the street while a new storm-water line is being installed. Access on the north side of Hamilton had been possible, but as of at least June 3rd, a sidewalk closed sign was put in place. People had been walking past anyway to get to the west, but with mud and a trespass on private property, this is not a suitable travel route.

This situation is completely inhibiting pedestrian traffic into Carthage at this point. Anyone living to the south and southwest would have to walk several blocks just to make forward progress of only a block or two. For example, if a resident of any of the many large apartment complexes along 48th Avenue or 49th Street or 49th Avenue wanted to use public right-of-way get to the coin laundromat on Saddle Creek (at 1479 Saddle Creek Road), a multiple block detour would be required. It would require walking west to 50th Street, north to Charles Street and for a block eastward on this route, then further travel along Saddle Creek Road. It also makes it more difficult to reach the ethnic market along Saddle Creek, further west, not to mention getting to the bus stop eastward at Radial Highway. Similar long detours would be needed to get to other places via a south route.

The lack of access is problematic for pedestrian in multiple ways, as churches, businesses which can lose customers and income, as well as private residences that are not as accessible as they should be.

This is a project of the Omaha Public Works Department as being constructed by Roloff Construction. It is quite troubling that this limitation in access due to construction was not considered by planners. Nor was it mentioned in the public meetings. Suitable options need to be immediately implemented to allow safe pedestrian traffic at this area of the project.

There is no information available on how long this particularly disruptive situation will continue.

Pictures of the setting taken the evening of June 8, 2015

Dirt conditions along Hamilton Street just west of Saddle Creek Road; this dirt will become mud with rain

A pedestrian crossing the construction zone

Another pedestrian within the construction zone

A view of the sidewalk closed signage on Hamilton Street

Another view of the sidewalk on the north side of Hamilton Street; even where the sidewalk is not closed, the construction company cannot keep debris off the public walkway

Acknowledgement of the situation has been received from Pete Festerson, Omaha City Council, who will have one of his staff work with Public Works and the contractor on this.

There was subsequently nothing done to address this situation. People associated with the work just figured that the residents would have to just wait until the street and sidewalk were replaced with new concrete!

04 June 2015

The Identity of Townsend’s Bunting

Mathew Louis
June 2, 2015

The name Emberiza townsendii was applied by Audubon to a single specimen collected by John Kirk Townsend in 1833 in New Garden, Pennsylvania. It is often referred as “Townsend’s Bunting,” and the details of the collection of this bird and its enigmatic status are well known.

A copy of Extinct Birds (Fuller, 2001; rev. ed.) in my library includes a color illustration of Audubon’s type (296) alongside a hypothetically-colored reconstruction by the artist (Julian Hume) of how that type may have appeared when first collected. While I had become familiar with Fuller’s book, and the illustration, since about the time of its publication, a notion occurred to me only recently which I feel is worth disseminating.

This is, very likely, a first-year or immature male Dickcissel x Lark Bunting hybrid (Spiza americana x Calamospiza melanocorys).

The illustration in Fuller is in copyright (but see www.extinction-website.com). Audubon figured the type (U.S. National Museum, #A10282) as plate 400, figure 4 in Birds of America [plate 157, 1841 edition.].

The most striking characteristic is the pale area along the folded wing, visible here in this, the decrepit specimen. The Lark Bunting’s tertiary and wing-coverts are white, and it is in Hume’s illustration that this character appears most obvious, whereas Audubon had not incorporated it in his portrait.

Comparing the above Townsend’s Bunting specimen to a male Lark Bunting specimen also conveys another peculiarity. Though the Lark Bunting’s undertail feathers are patterned with white panels on their outer extremities, the outer margins themselves are white. The image of the Townsend’s type likewise shows a margin to the outer right rectrix of a decidedly paler tone in contrast with the undertail itself. Audubon (Birds of America, 3: 62) had described the tail as “wood-brown, slightly edged with paler,…” This is quite different from the Dickcissel, which has a tail—an undertail—of a uniform brown without pale edges.

(Image source: www.miriameaglemon.com)

It is the Lark Bunting which, in immature or female plumages, has dark streaks along its crown (Byers, Sparrows and Buntings, pl. 17). As in our mystery bird, which is similarly marked (depictions of Audubon, Hume), the streaks appear as irregular flecks along the crown. The Dickcissel also bears a marked crown, but this is only true among immature or juvenile birds (Farrand, Western Birds (464)), and these marks tend to appear as evenly-arranged furrows. Though the streaks of the latter can also appear speckled if its crown is raised, there is a tendency for these rows of marks to be, nonetheless, nicely separated, and that aspect of this character also subtly distinguishes the Dickcissel from the other two. (See http://little-buffalo.com/tag/county/).

In the recent Extinct Birds (Hume & Walters, 2012, p. 346), the authors treat it as a hypothetical species combined in Spiza and provide these details of its description: “…eye-stripe, chin, throat, central line of underparts and edge of wing [emphasis mine] white; black-spotted line from lower corner of mandible down the side of throat, connecting with a crescent of streaks on upper edge of slate-blue breast.”

In ascribing the edge of wing as white, Hume and Walters are treating the type from a reconstructive perspective. Sharpe (Catalogue of the Birds in the British Museum, 12: 774 (1888)), likely working from American sources, described it in its actual state: “…the edge of the wing, and a gloss on the breast and the middle of belly, yellow.”

The Lark Bunting in immature or female plumages has discontinuous malar streaks, whereas in the Dickcissel the malar is a penciled line, with hardly an exception among individuals in the consistency of the marking. With respect to that character alone in the above image of the Townsend’s type, it may be an equivocal matter as to which species is represented by it.

The streaks on the breasts of the Townsend’s may actually be a correlating character of the Dickcissel, which has less streaking compared to the Lark Bunting, or limited streaking in younger birds.

Measurements [mm.] of Ridgway (Birds of North and Middle America, Part 1 (1901; 167, 171—175) on the Townsend’s and a series of the other two species also add to the argument.

Spiza townsendi [prevalent spelling of the Townsend’s]
Length: 146.05
Wing: 73.15
Tail: 53.59
Exposed culmen: 12.70
Depth of bill at base: 9.65
Tarsus: 20.07
Middle toe: 16.51
Ratio of exposed culmen to length—1: 11.50
Spiza americana
Length: 140.97—160.27 (148.08); female 139.70—145.80 (143.26)
Wing: 78.99—85.85
Tail: 55.12—61.47
Exposed culmen: 14.73—15.49 (14.99); female 12.70—14.22 (13.46)
Depth of bill at base: 10.41—11.43; female 9.91—10.67
Tarsus: 22.86—24.13
Middle toe: 16.76—18.03
Ratio of average female exposed culmen to average female length—1: 10.64
Calamospiza melanocorys
Length: 154.94—184.15 (163.32); female 144.78—165.10 (157.23)
Wing: 85.09—91.95
Tail: 65.53—71.12
Exposed culmen: 13.21—14.73 (13.97); female 12.70—13.21 (12.70)
Depth of bill at base: 10.67—12.19; female 10.16—11.94
Tarsus: 22.86—25.91
Middle toe: 16.76—18.03
Ratio of average female exposed culmen to average female length—1: 12.38

From this I can infer that the Townsend’s Bunting is appreciably larger than adult female Dickcissels, but as an immature or possibly adult individual (as the literature treats it as an adult), it averages much smaller than adult males of either species. For a (presumably) younger bird, it had already grown beyond the size of the largest female Dickcissels and in length is approaching that of the female Lark Bunting.

The most significant inference from the above is the comparative length of exposed culmen, the character where the Dickcissel averages greater than the Lark Bunting, as the former has a longer beak. The Townsend’s is on par with the smallest female Dickcissels, but this same figure is actually the mean of the female Lark Buntings. Even more compelling, culmen length is greatest in relation to body length in the Dickcissel, but the Townsend’s in this respect represents a significant departure from what would be expected if it was a pure Dickcissel, a figure midway between the two proposed parent species and even one approaching that of the Lark Bunting. [Female measurements are given as a comparative ratio on the basis of the small Townsend’s approaching females in size.]

Both the Lark Bunting and Dickcissel breed in the Great Plains region of the United States, the former a rare bird in Pennsylvania and the latter having been known to breed in the southern region of the state. Both are represented in rare records from Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area (Prince Edward County, Ontario). From my own observations of the Lark Bunting, it is an irregular species. It will sometimes occur singly among flocks of other species (as I have observed one or small numbers among gambelii White-crowned Sparrows, Brewer’s Sparrows, or House Finches). The Dickcissel, too, is often an irruptive species and one which will turn up in single or small numbers among flocks of other species, notably House Sparrows. Given consideration of these arguments, it is plausible to argue that perhaps once in a great while the two may interbreed. Hybridization, despite the two species being in different respective subfamilies (Emberizinae, Cardinalinae) of the Emberizidae, these being treated in more recent works as separate families.

I am not aware if the literature has discussed hybridization between these species and assume no formal record has been published. Thus, I am arguing that each indiviual in question—Audubon’s type and the bird photographed in Ontario—represent legitimate hybrids and that further discussion on these two individuals should appropriate such a designation. Implying that there is but a singular instance of known hybridization of the Dickcissel, Denis Lepage (see link below for “Open Mic: The Townsend’s Bunting Story”) refers to a Dickcissel x Blue Grosbeak hybrid “with the name Spiza townsendii also attached to it.”

The discovery last year of a Dickcissel similar to the famed Townsend’s Bunting and having aberrant plumage characters deserves attention —


Reflection on this case gives me reason to present the arguments in this essay as more than speculation. This new bird not only adds to the discussion, it makes it very likely that it represents an instance—another—of hybridization. The superb photographs by Kyle Blaney appear in his blog, where he, and later Denis Lepage of the American Birding Association, argue for it being an aberrant color variant of the Dickcissel, and suggest the same is true for the Townsend’s. This argument I reject, and in a major irony, it is these very images which more than reinforce my own arguments, not only of this individual but of the original Townsend’s Bunting.

These photographs reveal a bird that is similar to the Townsend’s Bunting, but with obvious differences. No streaks on crown, a white mark below the eye, brown tertiaries only edged white, a continuous malar streak, gray of lower back the same color as the head. The tail appears to be of a uniform brown color, though the images do not reveal the acute detail of the edge of the underside.

These images also reveal a number of stunning aspects about the bird which show a definite correlation to Lark Bunting characters—

*While the tertiaries are brown in this bird, they are edged pale whitish, typical of immature Lark Buntings. To clarify, the Lark Bunting has white panels at the outer edge of the tertiaries which extend along the bend of the wing to the outer wing-coverts and alula feathers. The inner tertiaries are brown in young or female birds, edged paler.

*The wing-coverts of this individual are white with black chevrons in their centers—this an obvious character of immature Lark Buntings. The last of the images in sequence shows how this white area appears as panels on the outstretched wing.

*The beak is dark blackish above, and of a weak bluish tone on the lower mandible. This beak appears bicolored, and that tends to favor suggesting the Lark Bunting, as it is distinctively bicolored in all stages, each mandible a separate hue. While the shape of this bird seems lengthy and pointed like the Dickcissel’s, the immature Dickcissel has a more pale or flesh-colored beak and the adult’s is not truly bicolored—coloration is similar to the Lark Bunting but the blue almost always leads beyond the lower mandible to the base of the upper, with only the area at and approaching the culmen dark or blackish.

The lower eye is marked white with a faint whitish suffusion leading along the lores, and this is a character of the Dickcissel, along with the gray color of the back.

Reinforcing these arguments also is a belatedly published description of the Townsend’s Bunting type by John Kirk Townsend himself. The record of Townsend’s original notes were not published until 1909 (Auk, 26: 262—272). He carefully described something approaching a Lark Bunting beak: “[u]pper mandible black, middle edge white, lower light blue with a longitudinal line of black extending from the point half way to the base;…” He described it having “shoulders yellowish white,” a reference to the aforementioned panels.

Its song was compared to that of an Indigo Bunting Passerina cyanea (“a succession of lively notes somewhat resembling…but louder and more varied”), which is significant as the Dickcissel has a distinct harsh call from which its vernacular name is derived. A melodic bird, as conveyed by Townsend, would be an Indigo Bunting, but the characters of that species, as also with the Blue Grosbeak as Denis Lepage has argued, do not at all allow for a correlation to the characters of the mystery birds in question. So it is to the vocalizations of the Lark Bunting which consideration is afforded, and it is plausible to argue that Townsend may have been hearing the whistled phrases of one in song. Just years later, he would be first to describe the Lark Bunting as Fringilla bicolor, but in describing it (from flocks he and Thomas Nuttall watched) no recollection or comparison to the earlier specimen, particularly its vocalizations, was made. In his notes, he compared the earlier mystery in its plumage to the Gray-headed Sparrow Passer griseus, a species which was originally and erroneously believed to have been first collected in the United States.

Another character deserving note, if only that, are the stipples below the eye in Julian Hume’s reconstructive illustration of the type. Though Audubon’s portrait does not show this, he having it fresh, it is another trait common in the Lark Bunting. The specimen may be too worn to be able to examine this point further.

I feel that a hybrid Dickcissel x Lark Bunting is a better argument than that of a simple aberrantly-plumaged individual for both cases. Each bird represents, in its plumage characters, examples of both species, and for the sake of my arguments, it is the Lark Bunting which is adequately represented as a parent and most likely the one species from which crosses such as these would originate. Despite the assertions made, a Blue Grosbeak hybrid is unlikely as that species does not adequately betray characters in these mystery individuals, and an aberrantly-plumaged individual is unlikely as this is a type of bird with remarkable proportions unlike those of a pure Dickcissel. It is possible that the Ontario bird may have different proportions (or even be an adult), but in regards to an actual identity of what these individuals are, I feel that what holds in the identity in the original Townsend’s Bunting holds for this more recent example, one and the same. A hybrid argument is also reinforced in that there is considerable variation between both individuals in question. A DNA analysis of the Townsend’s Bunting type would ultimately rectify this mystery, and this essay presupposes a course of further action.

"The Sage Sparrow, like the Lark Bunting and other related sparrows, usually reveals a panel of white wing-coverts with dark chevrons in the center of each. Comparison from this mystery bird to the Sage seems plausible from that, but it is important to note the distinction between the panels of the Sage and Lark Buntings, which also reduces the question of the former representing a hybrid parent. In Blaney's bird, these markings are unequivocally black, as night/day against the white areas--exactly like that of the Lark Bunting; whereas, in the Sage Sparrow, the dark markings on its wing-coverts are never as black, but a dark grayish-brown or blackish-brown and somewhat dull. There is proportionately a much lesser amount of white."

Having run search queries on the net of “Emberiza townsendi” in conjunction with the following terms: hybrid, Calamospiza, “Fringilla bicolor,” I was unable to find precedent on the Lark Bunting being associated with the discussion on this form.

(Also see Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding, 3: 214—215, 246 and Threatened Birds (ICBP, 2000).

Bird-Window Strike Number 2000 at Omaha

An itty-bitty female warbler has the dubious distinction of being record number 2000 for the known bird-window strikes in eastern Omaha. Her carcass was obvious on the concrete on the west side of the CenturyLink Center Omaha, early on the morning of May 29th, a Friday, when the fatality was discovered. It was very early in the morning when seen, because the staff of the place operated by the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority are also about early in their ongoing effort to throw birds into the trash. Their manner of the men dealing with bird deaths, and otherwise, notably at the west facade of the building, is pathetic as they have been seen picking up dead birds and throwing them into a trash container. Pick it up, throw it into the bucket and move along is their method. Their action conveys no respect and no proper consideration for what was once a vibrant bird life until the mix of vegetation and glass at the dangerous facility which is a known and ongoing threat to migratory birds. On this particular Friday morning, there were two more instances of bird deaths at the CenturyLink Center Omaha. Two juvenile grackles trying to learn their way in the urban world of east Omaha, also smacked into the glass facade and died. Elsewhere along the mourning's way, there was a dead Tennessee Warbler on the south side of the Union Pacific Center. A juvenile American Robin was dealt with on the west side of the Zorinsky Federal building, further along. These records are the result of 555 surveys of record, primarily done via bicycle along a route of about 13.2 miles, or more than 7,000 miles of pedaling. The Qwest/CenturyLink Center Omaha is the most hazardous building in the river city, with a tally of at least 658 records associated with bird window-strikes, and the tally is 73 species. Each bird death is a tragedy. Each bird death is a travesty. Each bird which dies due to a blasting contact with a glass pane is one more insult to the wild birds. At the CenturyLink Center Omaha, they spend thousands of dollars, according to news reports, and the results are nothing more than worthless, because of the vegetation to the west of the west facade and the lack of inhibitory decals on the lower portion of the glass. MECA spends a lot of money worthlessly since the placement of decals is not where it should be to deter bird-window strikes.

The yellowthroat carcass at CenturyLink Center Omaha, bird window-strike instance number 2000.