posted August 20th, 2013; last edited August 20th, 2013 –– David Sibley

Peter Pyle on Sage Sparrows

The most significant change for North American birders in the 2013 AOU Checklist supplement is the split of Sage Sparrow into two species: Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow. In this arrangement Bell’s Sparrow includes the distinctively dark coastal California subspecies belli, as well as the much less distinctive interior California subspecies canescens. Sagebrush Sparrow is monotypic (no named subspecies) and breeds throughout the Great Basin region.

The new challenge is to distinguish Sagebrush Sparrow from the interior subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow, and Peter Pyle has put together a preliminary guide to these species. The simplest summary is that Sagebrush Sparrow has stronger streaks on the back and a weaker lateral throat stripe, but the differences are small and affected by wear. You can download the pdf here:

pdf – On separating Sagebrush and Bells Sparrow

Feel free to leave comments here, including links to other resources that might help sort out this ID problem.

A blog post by Lauren Harter from Feb 2013 briefly discusses the status in the Lower Colorado River Valley, where both species winter, with a photo of an apparent canescens Bell’s Sparrow.

(A summary of all the new AOU changes is at the ABA blog)

2 comments to Peter Pyle on Sage Sparrows

  • Did anyone else notice the subtle difference in bill structure evident in Pyle’s pics in the above-referenced document?
    Compared to all the images for Sagebrush, the mandibles of all the Bell’s seem slightly narrower, with a slightly concave element at the tip such that the edge of the maxilla is visible on both sides at the tip plus there is a slight “overbite”, i.e. slight hook. I don’t know if the two birds in the direct comparison pic are selected from the same ones in the series-of-3 pics, but I assume so, thus the sample is very small (n= 3 for both.
    It might be worthwhile to examine more specimens to see if this difference holds up throughout a larger sample size.

  • Just to note to confirm that I see it too, Martin: The bills are more gracile in the 3 Bell’s Sparrows. It’s also interesting that Pyle doesn’t appear to mention the white outer tail feather edge on Sagebrush Sparrows, although that character seems variable in the specimens he photographed.

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