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Open Mic: The Townsend’s Bunting Story

At the Mic: Denis Lepage

Imagine that you are birding along in your favorite patch, like you always do, and suddenly come across one of the most mysterious and sought after bird in the history of North American birding? And what if it was a bird a bird so rare that you didn’t even know it existed, nor was it listed in any of the world field guides! This is exactly what happened to Kyle Blaney, from Ontario, while he was birding at Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area on May 14th, 2014, a story that he details in his blog (editor’s note: it’s a great story and really worth reading). Kyle came across this small flock of sparrows, with this odd-looking bird amongst them; rather non-descript, greyish, and about sparrow size. Luckily, Kyle is a photographer and was able to capture a few shots before the bird flew away. Not being too sure what he was looking at, he didn’t pursue the bird. On the same evening he then proceeded to ask around for suggestions about the identity of his bird. Everyone was stumped at first.

Later that evening, when I first saw the photos, received from my friend Ron Ridout, he had already noted that structurally the bird looked like a Dickcissel, but of course that the plumage was all wrong. With that in mind, I proceeded to look for whether any known case of hybridization existed for Dickcissel, just in case. Surprisingly, given that Dickcissel is the lone representative of his genus, I found a putative hybrid listed for Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak, with the name Spiza townsendii also attached to it. This seemed like an odd combination, but cross-genera hybrid are not impossible. Digging a little more into this, I came across this drawing from John James Audubon, which on the surface looked exactly like the PEP bird, less a few minor differences. I promptly posted a note on OntBirds in response to Kyle’s message indicating the similarities.

Photo by Kyle Cheney, used with permission. More photos, and the remarkable story of the bird's discovery, are available at Kyle's website.

Photo by Kyle Blaney, used with permission. More photos, and the remarkable story of the bird’s discovery, are available at Kyle’s website.

Since I spend a lot of time working on bird taxonomy for my work on Avibase, I was already somewhat familiar with the name Spiza townsendi, but not really with the full story. Townsend’s Bunting is one of a handful of birds that Audubon painted but for which identity has never been fully resolved!

The bird, originally found and collected by John Kirk Townsend in Pennsylvania in 1833, was so distinctive that both he and Audubon thought that it represented a unique species. Some original field notes from Townsend, long forgotten, were eventually published in the Auk (Deane 1909), where he not only describes the bird, but also its song (contra to Audubon who had labeled the bird as a female).

But this bird has never been reported since, and for over a century and a half, people thought that either represented an extinct species, a hybrid, or an aberrant individual. Interestingly enough, the Townsend’s Bunting is the only among this famous group for which a specimen has been preserved. Parkes, in 1985, had a chance to examine the precious specimen and concluded that the bird probably represented an aberrant variation of Dickcissel, and the story of the Townsend’s Bunting was again forgotten, and the case closed. Now, 181 years later, could we be looking at photos of one of the famous Audubon’s mystery birds!?

Excited by the prospect of the re-discovery of one of Audubon’s mystery birds, I then contacted Kyle and offered to write a story about his bird, which has now just been published in Birding Magazine. While I do believe that the bird is in fact an aberrant Dickcissel, just like the original Townsend’s Bunting most likely was, the fact that this particular plumage had only been ever since twice is indeed quite remarkable on its own. But there are probably a number of equally rare aberrant plumages in other species, and their discovery usually does not go beyond the rank of an interesting factoid to be quickly forgotten. What I find really makes this whole story fascinating is the historical aspect, and how it links to Audubon, one of the giants of American ornithology. In all likelihood, none of us may ever see this bird again within our lifetime!


Dr. Denis Lepage is a Senior Scientist at Bird Studies Canada. He created the popular bird resource Avibase and has been its curator for the last two decades.

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]
  • Rick Wright

    I love the bit in Townsend’s note where he is poring over Vieillot — and ultimately decides that his bird was n o t a Senegalese gray-headed sparrow.

    • Mark Stevenson

      The story is wonderful w/o additional info, yet in this age I have to ask:

      Would the old specimen have analyzable DNA remaining in it?

      • Rick Wright

        Probably. But if anybody has scraped it, they haven’t published the results of any analysis.

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