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A Worthy Bird

Back on May 8th of this year, Tim Davis and Andrew Davis found a remarkable bird in the mountain hamlet of Georgetown, Clear Creek County, Colorado: a Rufous-collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia capensis. At this writing, the bird is still in Georgetown, still singing sweetly, still delighting birders from all over Colorado and beyond.


20 May 2011Rufous-collared Sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis). Georgetown, Clear Creek County, Colorado; 20 May 2011. Photo by © Bill Schmoker.


This appearance of this bird compels me to offer to offer two observations about birdwatching—and more generally about the broader endeavor of nature study. My first observation is simply an affirmation of an old truth about all of us who are fascinated by birds and other objects and phenomena in the natural world. My second observation, though, may have some bearing on what I believe is an emerging, wonderful, new approach to birdwatching in North America.

Observation #1. We human beings—myself included!—have a tendency to make snap judgments about the things we see and otherwise sense in the universe around us. The Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow was initially assumed to be an escape from captivity. Rufous-collared Sparrows are sedentary in the wild, we were told, and they are popular as cage birds. And folks with extensive experience in Latin America informed us that Rufous-collared Sparrows exhibit no annual pattern with regard to singing; thus, it was pointless to speculate about seasonality and song development vis-à-vis the Georgetown bird.

The initial consensus, I think it’s fair to say, was that the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow had escaped from captivity, presumably from somewhere near Georgetown.

But that wasn’t the end of the story.

Other folks soon joined in on the conversation and presented alternative viewpoints. Some Rufous-collared Sparrow populations are highly migratory, they pointed out, dispersing thousands of kilometers on their annual migrations. Most or all populations—even those at or near the equator—exhibit at least some degree of seasonality with regard to song delivery. Turns out, too, that the species is rarely kept in captivity over much of its range. And here’s a special twist: Not too long ago, a special chartered plane arrived in Denver. Its cargo was lions rescued from a zoo in Bolivia. Could a Rufous-collared Sparrow have been a stowaway on the flight?

The Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow shows no sign of having been in captivity. For starters, it’s done a fine job of surviving in the wild for more than half a month. It wears no bands, and its feathers look “normal” for a wild bird. Rufous-collared Sparrows’ songs change throughout the breeding season, and the Georgetown bird’s song sounds about right for this time of the year. As one expert on South American birds told me, “My gut tells me that this is a wild bird.”


This video of the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow was made by © Connie Kogler. It’s interesting that this bird is singing in response to a nearby White-crowned Sparrow, which is in the same genus. At the time this video was made, the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow lacked a terminal trill, which is not atypical for birds at the beginning of the breeding season.


Now hang on a second. Nobody’s saying it unquestionably is a wild bird. Certainly, I’m not saying that. My first instinct, like that of many other birders in Colorado and elsewhere, was that the bird is an escape from captivity. What can I say?—I’m one of those human beings with a tendency to make snap judgments. But as I listen to arguments in favor of the possibility of natural vagrancy to Colorado, I find myself a bit more receptive to that scenario. Also, I’ve now seen the bird for myself, and—as horribly subjective as this is going to sound—there’s something about the bird that comes across as “wild” or “natural” or otherwise “legitimate.” One of our great birders in Colorado has said that he’s “agnostic” about the status of the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow, and that’s a great word to describe my present feelings. I just don’t know.

Which brings me to my other observation.

Observation #2. Birdwatchers are increasingly sensitive and holistic in their outlook on nature.

Whoa! I need to back up a few paces there! Let’s take this one step at a time.

I think it’s pretty likely the Colorado Bird Records Committee will “reject” the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow. I don’t have a problem with that. I acknowledge—even if I don’t fully accept—that records committees tend to be “conservative” in such matters of provenance. If a rare bird is of uncertain origin, then it gets rejected. That’s fine.

That’s fine, yes; and, back in the day, that would have been the end of the matter. Back in the day, most birders would have declined to trifle with such a bird as the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow. The bird is destined to be rejected, the reasoning would have gone, so why bother? Why bother to make the trek up to Georgetown, just to see a bird you can’t even put on your life list?

Fast forward to 2011.

I’m gratified that a great many birders from Colorado—even from out of state—have gone to look for the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow. The bird is remarkable. If it got here on its own from somewhere in Latin America, that’s pretty darned impressive. And if we’re dealing with an escape from captivity, it’s likewise impressive that the bird has adapted so well to the rigors of outdoor living. Any way you slice it, the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow is a “good” bird, a worthy bird.

A worthy bird.

Isn’t that a funny notion?—avian “worth.” Yet it’s undeniable. A Painted Bunting in Louisiana has some small amount of worth. But a Painted Bunting at a vagrant trap in southern California is worth considerably more. Unless it’s a known or suspected escape from captivity—in which case it’s worthless.

Or so it used to be. I do sense that we birders are getting away from that old mindset. These days, we marvel at the sight of a California Condor along the rugged central California Coast—even though the birds are, in the official currency of life list countability, worthless. These days, we sign up for guided tours focusing on the exotics—including the uncountable species—of South Florida. And this emerging new outlook extends well beyond those notorious uncountable exotics. These days, we are increasingly committed to in-depth study of the common birds in our local patches; we are more attuned to regional population-level phenomena than ever; and, of course, we’re all plugged into eBird by now, aren’t we?

The result of it all?—greater satisfaction when we are out birding; deeper understanding of bird biology; and, for sure, an expanded conception of the worth, of the worthiness, of all objects and phenomena in the natural world.


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

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  • Well said as always, Ted. I marvel at them all. Though I have yet to shed my tendency to spout out – “it’s JUST a…”.

    I might even make another trip to spend more time with this bird. It was incredibly fascinating to watch.

    I wish I could interview it, but so far, it’s not granting any.

  • Nothing makes me cringe like talk of “wildness” in out place birds. This, as pointed out by Ted, goes to countability and whether it’s “worth” looking at.

    But “wild” is the wrong word on many different levels. I would argue that this bird is unquestionably wild, if the issue is purely one of behavioral ecology. The more appropriate question is: did this obviously wild bird have human assistance getting to Colorado? Did somebody capture this bird, put it in a cage and carry it to Colorado? Did it get stuck in a freight truck or boxcar? The ABA rule is human assisted, not wild. “Wild” behaviors are immaterial, especially in this case.

    A Eurasian Tree Sparrow spent the winter in my backyard a few years back. I have no doubt that a wild bird hopped a freighter in its country of origin (just like my great great grandpappy) and jumped ship when he got to North America. It was a great bird to get to watch, but rules are rules, it doesn’t go on my ABA list. It does go on many of my other lists, though.

    A recent trend in evaluating the extra-limital records is the “prove it’s not wild” argument. One can’t really prove a negative and lack of evidence is not evidence against. We don’t even really prove most positives. We just bury our hypotheses in enough evidence to make them seem proved. What we are really showing is a very persuasive P-value (sometimes with real statistics, but mostly in the metaphorical sense).

    I enjoy seeing the (uncountable) budgie squawking away in the pines out at the South Jetty of the Columbia River just as much as I do, an Eastern Kingbird that technically doesn’t belong there, either. Both believe they’re wild and free, if behavior is any indicator. Who am I to throw around labels?

  • Fantastic discussion Ted! Human-assisted or vagrant, I’m glad that eBird allows us to record such sightings, even if not shown on the public database. Over time, these sightings will mean more and more.

  • Thanks to Mike Patterson for raising an important point. Specifically:

    > A recent trend in evaluating the extra-limital records
    > is the “prove it’s not wild” argument. One can’t really
    > prove a negative and lack of evidence is not evidence
    > against.

    Over on the COBirds e-mail list (see, e.g.,, we’ve been discussing the matter of the “correct” null hypothesis for such birds as the Georgetown Rufous-collared Sparrow. First off, a null hypothesis has to be stated in such a manner that it can be disproved. A fine null hypothesis might be:

    A certain bird is wild.

    Then your alternative hypothesis would be:

    The bird is not wild.

    A relatively poor null hypothesis would be:

    The bird is not wild.

    Then your alternative hypothesis would be:

    The bird is not not-wild.

    I believe that most bird records committees start off with such assumptions as “The bird is not wild.” Then, instead of attempting to disprove the null hypothesis (“The bird is not not-wild”), they simply present evidence that affirms the null hypothesis. That is not how to do science!

    Case in point: the Demoiselle Crane in California about a decade ago. My impression is that the prevailing logic went like this:

    1. The bird is assumed to be not wild.

    2. Therefore it is not wild.

    I’m completely serious. That was the extent of the “logic.” As circular as can be. (Important qualifier: That’s the “logic” as it has been presented to me. It is quite possible that evidence has been amassed, without my knowing it, that the bird was shown to be not not-wild.)

    The “correct” stance, it seems to me, would have been to assume that the Demoiselle Crane was wild, followed by an attempt to disprove that hypothesis. For example, was it banded at a nearby zoo? Did a zoo in Sacramento report one missing? Did it show patterns of feather wear inconsistent with wild origin? If yes to one or more of the preceding, then you toss out the null hypothesis (the bird is wild) in favor of the alternative hypothesis (the bird is not wild).

    A more challenging proposition would have been: The bird is not wild. Then you would attempt to disprove that by, say, obtaining a feather and showing, via stable isotope analysis, that it originated from, say, central Asia (where it occurs in the wild) and not from a nearby zoo.

    The former null hypothesis (the bird is wild) is much better, in my opinion. I think bird records committees would do well to try to disprove the null hypothesis that birds of uncertain provenance are wild; I think it’s a lot harder to try to disprove the null hypothsis that birds of uncertain provenance are not not-wild; and I’m certain that it’s illogical and unscientific simply to affirm that birds of uncertain provenance are not wild–and then fail to attempt to present any evidence to the contrary!

    To cut to the chase: What’s the evidence that the California Demoiselle Crane was not not-wild?

  • Wild is not the best descriptor in this case either. Let’s use the conservative default “escaped”. Insisting on the word “wild” in the framing of the hypothesis is not a neutral position. It’s an “I want to be able to count this on my list” position. It’s the position of a birder, not a biogeographer.

    The null hypothesis should reflect the conservative position. The bird is an escape from a zoo or aviary. The alternative hypothesis would be the bird came to North America without any human assistance.

    Given the amount of scrambling we’ve been doing with organisms on the planet, we should not be starting from: this rare, extra-limital and popular aviary specimen is not an escapee. This assumes our goal is to better understand the distribution and patterns of movement for species. If the goal is tickability, let’s dump the concept of “unassisted” and avoid the argument altogether.

  • Marcus Webster

    Wildness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. We humans have changed our natural environment in so many ways it’s hard to say what pristine nature is anymore. Whether the sparrow is wild or not, it is intriguing to consider that he may breed with one of the locals, contributing to gene flow in the Zonotrichia complex.

  • Love the discussion (even 3 yrs hence). I lived in Bolivia for a time and these things were everywhere, esp. in urban areas. Very hardy creatures. Would not be surprised if it hitched on the lion’s cargo plane. So what? Would it be more natural if it rode on a mat of trees across the Pacific and landed in CA? What if it rode on a mat of trees lying atop wooden (man-made) pallets? What if you see a Barred Owl in the western U.S. whose population could not have expanded westward without humans allowing trees to grow across the prairies? What if these western birds are later recognized as a new species? Hmm… I personally don’t mind whether my birds are ABA or not, since I am in competition with no one. Each species has the potential to influence the populations of other species (whether that be Homo sapiens, feral cats, lions, etc).

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