American Birding Podcast



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.