A New Jersey Birder’s California Junco

The calendar and the weather agree: It’s still late summer in northern New Jersey. A month from now, things will be different, but for the moment, only the most foolishly impatient prodder of the seasons is thinking of winter birds.

Except, of course, on this date. It’s September 6. And every year on this day, we pause — don’t we? — to remember the only Oregon junco named for a New Jersey birder.

Dwight 1918 thurberi junco

Eugene Carleton Thurber died in California on September 6, 1896, at the shockingly tender age of 31. Born in Poughkeepsie in 1865, Thurber moved to Morristown in 1881; a “promising young ornithologist, a careful collector, and a good observer,” he published his magnum (and perhaps solum) opus in November 1887, the List of Birds of Morris County, notable especially for its early records of the Lawrence’s and Brewster’s warblers.

Fragile health sent Thurber to California in 1889, where he

lived an out-of-door life in the field, collecting birds and mammals, as his health would permit, and preserving to the end his love for his favorite study.

On May 24, 1890, Thurber collected two juncos on Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains. That summer, he showed the skins to Alfred Webster Anthony, another New York native exploring the Golden State; Anthony was “considerably surprised” to learn of juncos’

nesting in abundance within twenty-five miles of Los Angeles,

and as none of the other local collections seemed to include any similar specimens, he organized an expedition in late August to “obtain, if possible, a series of birds.” On August 27 and 28, Anthony found juncos “very abundant” between 5200 and 5800 feet elevation. He shot what seems to have been a total of eight adults, two juveniles, and one bird of unknown age and sex; all of those new adult specimens, however, were — as one might have predicted, without climbing the mountain in the first place — “in ragged moulting plumage,” inadequate for diagnosis.

So Anthony, apparently forgetting about Google Images, sent his little series, which by now included both of Thurber’s skins, to Washington, whence Robert Ridgway replied with some “rather unexpected” information: Anthony’s — Thurber’s — California juncos represented a “strongly marked” but still unnamed subspecies.

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A deficiency, naturally enough, that Anthony promptly made up in the October 31, 1890, issue of Zoe:

I take pleasure in naming this handsome Junco for the discoverer, Mr. E.C. Thurber of Alhambra, Cal.

A few months later, having run through the juncos in a collection of birds purchased from Thurber in 1889, Frank Chapman was mildly skeptical: he pointed out that Anthony had failed to demonstrate that his new thurberi could be distinguished from the very widespread shufeldti.

The AOU, however, recognized the new race in 1892, and continued to list it as valid in the last Check-list to tally subspecies. BNA and Pyle, too, list thurberi among the Oregon junco subspecies. I’m glad we have a name for this population, whose recent colonization of the nearby California lowlands has provided some surprising insights into the rapidity of junco evolution.    

Thurber’s early death kept him from leaving much of a biographical trail: We know a great deal more about the junco than the man. All the more reason to remember him once a year, I think, even if our juncos are still a month away.


Another Sad Centennial: Dusky Discoveries

Dusky Seaside Sparrow, Oologist 31 -1914

A hundred years ago, there was still a tidy little list of North American birds whose nest and eggs had never been seen by white scientists. Among them: the dusky seaside sparrow.

The collectors of those days took their failure personal, and their inability to discover the home of

a bird whose range covered only a few square miles, and one that had been known to science for forty-one years, and whose nest had never been found, was a “slam” on the ability of us true Oologists.

In the early summer of 1914, Oscar Baynard and Henry Simpson set out to put things right. For a full week in May, Baynard and his “old side kick”

cruised the entire length of Merritts Island, visiting every place where there had ever been any records of the Dusky Seaside Sparrow…. on the morning of May 21st … I saw a Black Sparrow…. I killed the bird and upon dissecting same found it to be a male evidently in full breeding.

This sure made us feel good.

Encouraged, the collectors “plunged into the marsh” and quickly discovered “at least” twenty dusky seaside sparrows in the dense salicornia carpet. Four hours later, they had found no nest. Simpson suggested over dinner that the sparrows

did not lay eggs at all but had young like an animal.

And so after their meal, they took to the time-honored method of dragging the marsh with a weighted rope. It took no time at all before a bird flushed as if from a nest, which the searchers found and promptly collected, with its three “heavily incubated” eggs.

To say that we were elated is expressing it mildly and we did a regular Indian Tango or some other kind of dance…. We vowed we would find more nests or never leave the spot.

Baynard and Simpson lived up to their vow only too well in the days that followed, taking fledglings, nestlings, and two more sets of eggs. The third clutch they collected was so “heavily incubated” that one egg began to hatch on the way back to the boat; Baynard

was unable to save but one egg of this set.

“Save,” indeed.

Dusky seaside sparrow nest, Baynard 1914

Two of the nests and egg sets, along with the skins of the parent birds, were sold to John Eliot Thayer, of gull fame. Thayer in turn donated the first nest and clutch, collected on May 21, 1914, to Harvard’s museum, where they still reside.

Does it matter that, by my count, Baynard and Simpson killed at least 17 sparrows and sparrows in spe on those few May days a century ago?

I don’t know how to answer that question, or how to argue that the dusky seaside sparrow would have remained doomed regardless of the efforts of the collectors. But wouldn’t it be fine today to have seventeen dusky seaside sparrows and their hundred years of descendants buzzing away in the marshes of the Florida coast?



How Many Wing Bars?

American Tree Sparrow

One of the few things I can still enjoy about winter in the snow zone is the chance to spend some time with one of my (fifty or sixty or so) favorite emberizids, the American Tree Sparrow.

There’s a game I like to play when I’m watching this or any other “familiar” bird: How, I ask myself, can this bird be identified without recourse to any of the old Petersonian “field marks”?

After all, once you’ve seen your first hundred or thousand or (probably, though I don’t have an exact count) ten thousand tree sparrows, you don’t really look at the rusty crown or the smudgy breast spot or the swollen, yellow-based mandible.

Those are all “micro” marks, often hard to pick out without the application of glass. And yet we know what we’re looking at even before we’ve switched off the car. So what are we actually seeing — and can we make our impressions explicit, in real live honest-to-goodness words?

American Tree Sparrow

Well, there’s the rather long, black tail with conspicuous white edging, for one thing. There’s the coarse back pattern of rufous and black tracks, so unlike the neater, finer markings of this species’ (current) congeners. And there’s that big reddish secondary panel that contrasts so strikingly with the most beautifully black and white tertials worn by any American sparrow.

But most of the time it’s that single bright white wing bar that catches my eye.

American Tree Sparrow

And every time it does, I smile. What I learned as a young birder was that

Two conspicuous white wing-bars are also characteristic,

in the words of what still ranks as one of the very best field guides ever.

Indeed, American Tree Sparrows do have very large, very conspicuous white tips to both the greater and the median secondary coverts.

Slater Museum -- click to visit this fantastic online resource.
Slater Museum — click to visit this fantastic online resource.

But just because a bird “has” two wing bars doesn’t mean it “has” two wing bars. More often, I think, than most sparrows, birds of this species tend — at least in the winter — to droop their scapulars and fluff their breast feathers, often covering the median coverts, and thus the “upper” wing bar, entirely, creating the effect of a single bold white slash across a rich chestnut field.

American Tree Sparrow

Even when the second, upper wing bar is visible, it tends to appear incomplete; in two hours of sparrowing the other day, I had sustained looks at a bird revealing both wing bars in their full glory exactly once.

None of this is exactly earthshaking, I suppose, and I’ll admit that I still take every opportunity I can to enjoy the classic, oft-repeated identification characters of this charming species. But my birding is invariably enriched when I stop to ask not “What is it?” but rather “How do we know?”

Maybe yours would be, too.

American Tree Sparrow



We forget how strange most birding conversation must sound to the occasional eavesdropper of more normal habits and predilections. Many of the words and the names that trip so easily from our tongues sound strange at best, and silly at worst, in mixed company.

sapsucker mix

I don’t mean just the obvious ones, the sapsuckers and the flowerpiercers and the boobies, but even names that seem perfectly usual to “us” — but entirely foreign to “them.”




Yellow-eyed Junco

Especially this time of year, when fields and feeders are aflutter with those sturdy gray sparrows from the north woods, we birders say “junco” all the time without a second thought.

But if we do think twice, it’s a funny name, isn’t it? English words don’t really look like that, and it’s hard to figure out what on earth this one could mean.

Hard, it turns out, not just for the average birdworder like me, but for just about everyone, it seems. Still our great coryphaeus in such matters, Elliott Coues sets a rare question mark next to the etymology from “juncus, a rush,” and Choate sniffs that this is

a singularly inappropriate name for a genus whose habitat is not among the reeds.

Terres is always good for an often good alternative, but here he offers only the speculation that the name in question refers to the color of reeds. I’m not buying it.


Not even Johann Georg Wagler, naming this genus in the Isis in 1831, provides a clue as to why he should have chosen the name Junco for the new “Finkammer,” and his promise of a more detailed investigation to come was left unfulfilled when he died, at the age of 32, a year later.

But the  name “junco” was not new in 1831. It had in fact already been applied, in Latin and the vernacular, to birds of the Old World well before Wagler appropriated it for his new genus of Mexican sparrows.

If we go back nearly three centuries before Wagler, we find that the sixteenth-century Saxon poet and antiquarian Georg Fabricius knew “Junco” as a name for one of the wagtails.

Blue-headed Yellow Wagtail

In 1789, Cornelius Nozeman and Maarten Houttuyn used “junco” as a scientific name — but as a species epithet, not a genus designation. In their Nederlandsche vogelen, those authors named the bird we now know as the Eurasian Reed Warbler Turdus junco, “reed thrush.”

Nederlandsche Vogels 1789

In 1668, Charleton included two entries for the junco in his Onomasticon.

Charleton, Onomasticon

This bird, he so reasonably says, is called the “junco” because it “readily passes its time among the reeds.” The French call it the “sea lark,” the English a “stint.” This junco seems to have been a shorebird.

And, at the same time, a bunting.

Charleton Junco reed-sparrow

That second usage goes back at least to William Turner, who, working from Theodorus Gaza‘s translations of Aristotle, determined that this was what The Philosopher must have meant with his “junco”:

Since I do not know any small bird living in the rushes and reeds other than the one called by the English “rede sparrow,” I believe that that must be the “junco.” It is a small bird, a little smaller than the House Sparrow, with a rather long tail and a black head. The rest is dusky.

Turner’s identification was sufficiently cogent as to be taken over (probably by way of Charleton) into Phillips’s New World of English Words, which — a good century and a quarter before Wagler — defines “junco” as precisely that same “Reed-Sparrow, a Bird” we now call the Reed Bunting. Phillips’s definition, quoted in the OED as well, probably provides the evidence backing James Jobling’s concise entry in the Helm Dictionary: “Junco Med.L. junco Reed Bunting (>L. juncus reed).”

How, though, did the name shift from an emberizid out in those vast Old World beds of juncaceous vegetation to our demure gray sparrow of open woodlands and winter suburbs?

Yarrell Reed Bunting

There is a clue, I think, in one of the alternative names of the Reed Bunting. Swann tells us that this species is also known, misleadingly enough, as the “Black-headed Bunting,”

frequently so called provincially on account of its black head.

For Turner, too, the black head was this bird’s distinctive plumage character — indeed, the only plumage character he mentions at all.

My theory is that Wagler, confronted for the first time with the skin of an unknown dusky-plumed bunting-like bird with a black head, recalled that familiar European bunting. Wagler did not know the habitat preferences of his new bird, and was not thinking of reeds and rushes when he named it. What he did know was that in its most conspicuous plumage mark, the dark-hooded head, it resembled the Reed Bunting  and most importantly, he knew that the slightly odd word “junco” was available for scientific use.

And today, nearly 200 years later, available for the rest of us, too, when we look at the window and wonder what those little gray birds at the feeder could possibly be called.

BAckyard snow


Avant la lettre: What Is Audubon’s Snow Bird?

I’ve been unfair to Audubon.

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For years — for decades, in fact, ever since, as a fourth grader, I first learned about the man and the work — I’ve judged him, and harshly, solely on the evidence of the engraved plates that make up the The Birds of America.

I’ve been fortunate over the years to have been affiliated with a couple of institutions that own full sets, and I’ve always appreciated the big books as masterpieces of technology and entrepreneurial drive. But art? Not really.

My mind was changed, completely and abruptly, in late April when I finally made my way to the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition of some 220 of Audubon’s paintings — not the plates that were printed, colored, and sold to subscribers, but the actual paintings that served as the exemplars for the engraver.

Like most of us, the closest I’d ever come to seeing anything from Audubon’s paintbrush was the rather poor reproductions, on decidedly poor paper, of the watercolors published and republished in the 1970s and 80s. The originals themselves have been shown only very rarely in the 150 years since they were purchased from Lucy Audubon — but they are astonishing, startling, eye-opening.

They’re really good.


Not only do the paintings reveal an artist in masterful command of his media, but they also, just as surprisingly, have a few things to teach us about the birds Audubon was painting. Take his Snow Bird, the bird we know today as the Dark-eyed Junco.

The engraving of this otherwise so engaging sparrow in Birds of America has always left me cold. It’s bland and dull, and the coloring of the specimens I’ve seen has always seemed vague, especially on the lower bird, the male, whose breast and hood just don’t seem to want to join up as they do in real life. Poor draftsmanship, poor engraving, poor coloring: it doesn’t really matter where the sloppiness was introduced.

In late April I saw Audubon’s original painting, the model for this junco plate, and suddenly it all came clear to me. (Click on the image symbol on the NYHS site to see that painting.)

Most of the engravings are more or less faithful renderings of Audubon’s originals: but not this time. The painting, prepared from specimens collected in Louisiana, differs strikingly from the engraved plate in depicting a male bird with a decidedly black, highly contrasting hood, sharply set off in a straight line from the softer gray of the breast sides and flank; the lower edge of that hood extends into the white lower breast, creating a “convex” border.

You know where this is headed, don’t you?

Audubon’s bird was not your everyday Slate-colored Junco. Instead, the bird that he shot and drew was a male Cassiar Junco, and his painting was the first depiction ever of a “flavor” of juncos that would not be formally described until 1918, nearly a hundred years later.

I don’t know whether we have any of Audubon’s instructions to the colorists responsible for finishing the plate, but I still think that we can figure out with some certainty what happened. I’m guessing that Audubon was slightly puzzled when he reviewed his Louisiana painting, and that he asked the engraver and the colorists to “correct” the pattern of the bird’s breast and sides to match that of the Slate-colored Junco, the taxon he would later describe in the Ornithological Biography

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Had I not seen the painting hanging in New York, I would have gone on in my benighted way, shaking my head over another botched Audubonian bird. Instead, I wind up admiring more than ever before the ornithologist who discovered the Cassiar Junco — and the artist who gave us such a fine depiction of a wonderful but long unrecognized bird.