Probable Dark-eyed Junco X White-throated Sparrow Hybrids

On of my true birding passions is studying the juncos that visit my feeder in Ashford, Windham County, Connecticut. Since realizing that this common wintering species and locally uncommon nesting bird can show a wide variety of plumage characters, I have been hooked on cataloguing the range of variation exhibited by Slate-colored Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis).

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The plate above illustrates the typical variation one might expect to see in eastern populations of Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Juncos, while the plate below depicts non-typical and non-eastern Dark-eyed Juncos that the author has observed in Connecticut over several years. This original artwork, painted by Mark S. Szantyr, is based on birds observed near his home in Connecticut.

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This Dark-eyed Junco, a presumed hatch-year female Oregon-type, appeared at the author's home in Ashford, Connecticut on 14 January 2008 (photo by Mark S. Szantyr).

A bonus has been finding an occasional Oregon-type Junco in wintering flocks in Connecticut. On 14 January 2008, while photographing a beautiful presumed hatch-year female Oregon Junco (J. h. oreganus) at my feeder, I found one, and then another, junco exhibiting characters that indicate probable hybridization with another common wintering and locally uncommon nesting species, White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis).

What first attracted my attention to these birds, two of about 50 juncos using my feeders, was the presence of a pale throat. Typically, Slate-colored Juncos show a throat that is the same color as the breast. It should be noted that hatch-year birds sometimes show a slight paling in this area. One of these birds showed an extensive pale area below the chin that extended to the top of the breast. It also showed faint sub-moustachial marks reminiscent of those shown by White-throated Sparrows.  The other bird showed a similar but less extensive white area on the throat. Both birds showed spots in the supraloral area, again similar to where a White-throated Sparrow shows yellow.

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The bird shown in these front-on views was paler on throat and lacks the buffy tones in the bib (lower throat/upper breast) shown by the other probable hybrid. Both birds showed the whitish supraloral spots that can be seen on this bird. Note the hint of dark sub-moustachial stripes bordering the paler throat area in the top image. (photos by Mark S. Szantyr).

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Both birds showed white tips to the lesser coverts and limited dotting on the greater coverts that formed dotted wing bars resembling those shown by the genus Zonotrichia ('crowned' sparrows). These were different than the white edgings that form wing bars in some Slate-colored Juncos.

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The presumed hybrid seen above shows some buffy coloration in the bib and a single reddish brown, white-tipped greater covert (on the lowest part of the folded wing) that is near identical in pattern to those shown by Zonotrichia sparrows. Also note the diffuse streaking on the back. The second bird, seen below, also shows a pale throat and pale supraloral spots. In this image, notice the series of white spots that form broken wing bar across the tips of the median covert feathers. While most Slate-colored Juncos show no wing bars, the wing bars on those that do are formed by interconnected white fringes (not spots) on the tips of the median and greater coverts. The wing bar pattern shown on the bird below is more expected on Zonotrichia sparrows (photos by Mark S. Szantyr).

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These birds also showed brownish streaking dorsally and one showed buffy coloration to the bib and had one greater covert feather that looked similar to a Zonotrichia covert. These birds were not captured so age and sex determination would only be speculative.

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These images of a White-throated Sparrow (above) and a typical Slate-colored Junco (below) are included for reference. (photos by Mark S. Szantyr).

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The one previous Junco X White-throat hybrid I have seen in Connecticut looked much more like a White-throated Sparrow. That bird, found and photographed by Bruce and Kevin Finnan , was the White Memorial Foundation feeders in Litchfield, Litchfield County, Connecticut during the winter of 1999.

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Unlike the mostly junco-like birds described from Ashford, Connecticut, this Slate-colored X White-throated Sparrow hybrid, discovered and photographed by Bruce and Kevin Finnan at Litchfield, Connecticut during the winter of 1999, looks more like a White-throated Sparrow.

As noted above, both Slate-colored Junco and White-throated Sparrow are locally uncommon breeders Connecticut. The nearest known nesting sites for either species is at Boston Hollow about eight miles north of my home. It is conjecture, but the presence of two birds suggests that they may have come from this area and are the product of limited mate selection for these two species.

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Like most of us, Mark Szantyr is inclined to drop whatever he’s doing to chase a rare bird, especially if there is an opportunity to get good photos. At the same time, he is one of those rare birders who goes out of his way to observe and photograph common birds. As a trained artist, he has an eye for detail and willingness to focus his attention on what most would call minutiae. This focus on fine details allow him to discover things most birders would never notice. In the backyards of most birders, the two hybrids featured in this piece would be passed off as odd-looking juncos, if their subtle plumage differences were recognized at all. We welcome his writing, images, and artwork to our community and look forward to many future offerings.

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Wow.
Most illustrations of SC Junco x WT Sparrow show birds that are obviously — key word obvious — strange. Some, so much so, that they look an entirely new species. These birds are far more subtle, yet the combination of marks (as opposed to Marks :o) makes it difficult to accept these simply as aberrant SCJU. As David Irons said, kudos to Mark for his careful observation skills (and tasty photos).

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I suggest to Mark and all others who use the word “hybrid” , firstly, I suggest that only if there is a distinct shape or size change in the species in question should one be concerned with the entity – a hybrid. The next step would be to analyze the the DNA. Or, the hybrid can be induced by an individual working with trapped or caged animals. I am not a biologist nor ornithologist- however I am of the opinion that the weakest link in the genome is the one that processes for color or patterning. And color and patterning go hand in hand. So, in particular, what might be ocurring with a thought-of SCJU x Wt Sparrow? How about expressed recessive genes, or epigenetic factors – that can also bring about expressed recessive responces. And could it be that a mutation is occurring?

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In response to the hybrid question I refer to the title of the piece, “Probable Hybrid…”. I understand that certainty in this can only come with DNA analysis. Lucky for the birds in question, this was not possible. I do believe that when characters attributable to two species are present on an individual (or two in this case), when these characters are consistent over both individuals, when there is a well-documented history of hybridization that involves parents that show the combined characters present on these individuals, and when the characters present are not found in the dominant phenotype, that is, when the pale throat with dark submoustachial marks and pale supraloral spots, White-throat like covert feathers, and features of body plumage not known to occur in Slate-colored juncos are present, perhaps the most reasonable conclusion, absent DNA evidence, is that these birds are the result of mixed pairings, possibly over more than one generation, between the two parent species, in this case, White-throated Sparrow and Dark-eyed Junco. It is my opinion and that of several knowledgeable birders, that the combined characters present on these two birds suggests strongly that they are in fact hybrids between Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow.

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Question: how many birds would D.A. Sibley pass on. Answer- it would depend on the quantity of birds observed. The larger the quantity the birds the more of a chance that D.A.Sibley would have to just let that one go, I.E., not be sure what species that bird belongs to. Would Mr. D. A. Sibley go out on a limb and bleat- since I don’t know the species,“that bird is or might be a hybrid”. I don’t know the answer to my question- however, I think it is an interesting question. And I will project that Mr. D.A. Sibley would not make that remark.

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The repeated mention of “D.A. Sibley” in the comments above would appear to suggest that renowned bird artist and field author David Sibley is the yardstick we should all be measuring ourselves against. It also seems to suggest that Mark Szantyr’s excellent discussion of probable Junco X White-throated Sparrow hybrids would not pass the “what would Sibley do?” litmus test. As a point of fact, Mark Szantyr and David Sibley are well-acquainted. Sibley has viewed these images and arrived at the same well-reasoned conclusion regarding their presumed parentage.

Knowledge of bird ID is not proprietary, thus it does not belong to the author of the most popular current field guide. We invited Mark Szantyr to publish his piece in the BirdFellow online journal because we, like many, consider him to be an authority on the plumage variation in Dark-eyed Junco. I think one would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has spent more time critically observing juncos.

In more than 40 years of birding, I have yet to meet the birder who has discovered most of what they know about birds. We are all the beneficiaries of knowledge passed forward, Sibley included. As we continue building the BirdFellow community, we will seek out folks like Mark Szantyr who can contribute to our collective knowledge of birds. Like all of us, Mark has a unique set of birding experiences and a particular set of interests that drive his passion, thus he has much to share.

Though it may seem competitive and contentious in some circles, birding is more often a highly social, interactive, and intellectual pursuit that is driven by learning and teaching. Most birders get excited by two things, seeing a new bird (a lifer) or helping someone else see a new bird. When we see a new bird, we learn. When we help someone else see new bird or show them something new about the bird, we teach.

Our very first piece, “A Tradition of Mentoring…” (published 22 December 2009), was intended to set the tone for this website. Collectively, we know much more than will ever be published in a single field guide. Efforts to share knowledge via peer-reviewed writings, photo essays, and other means will be encouraged. At the same time we will take a dim view of those who attempt to subvert this process. Given his years of junco study and commitment to sharing what he has learned, we find the suggestion that Mark Szantyr has “gone out on a limb” or is “bleating” to be both disrespectful to him and outside the bounds of respectful discourse.

As stated in my earlier comments, if you have an issue with the facts presented, we welcome alternative viewpoints and evidence to support them. Direct criticisms of or attempts to discredit persons within the BirdFellow community are not acceptable.

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A little off-topic, but last Dec ‘08 – Jan ’09 brought a Junco, very similar to the photo of the first year female Oregon type above (is it “presumed” to be a first year female, or “presumed” to be an Oregon type?), to my central NJ feeder. Interest in this bird led me to another of Mark’s pages ( http://www.oceanwanderers.com/JuncoID.html ), where I first read about Cassiar Juncos. I haven’t been able to turn up any additional info regarding Cassiars online however.

In the end, I conservatively called the bird a “brown” adult, after Sibley’s illustrations. Is the “brown adult” the same as a Cassiar, and how would one distinguish a Cassiar from a first year female Oregon type?

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Thanks for the note Eric. Cassiar Junco, or Junco hyemalis cismontanus, is a junco that breeds from south central Yukon to central British Columbia. It is a “Slate-colored” Junco but can look very much like an Oregon-type in its reddish back, reddish flanks, and hooded appearance. There are some differences that I have gleaned from the literature, namely, concave not convex lower border to the gray hood, the hood being incomplete across the nape, and the reddish flank feathers being reddish tipped with gray bases and not entirely red. It is a tough ID from the reddish form J. hyemalis hyemalis and from some dull immature oregon types. The two best references I have forund are the Bent Life Histories volume concerning the Juncos and the Univeristy of California Monograph by Alden H. Miller, “Speciation in the Avian Genus Junco”, published in 1941. Miller is “the man” on junco study. I would be happy to look at any images you might have of the New Jersey bird…even then it can be really difficult. And in the article, I meant presumed HY female…it is an oregon-type.

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Thanks, Mark. Unfortunately, I only have a rudimentary sketch. My attempt to photograph the bird on a subsequent sighting was unsuccessful! Alas, I don’t trust the bib-shape in my drawing, as I only meant to record that a hood was present. I drew the bird as having pinkish-brown sides stretching up to the shoulder (similar to Oregon female photo above), a slate gray hood, and a brown mantle blending up through the nape into a bit of brown streak towards the crown. Also, tertials were edged with a light gray, rather than any brown (unlike the Oregon photo above).

I’ll see if I can get the references you mention, and keep an eye out again this winter. Thanks for spreading some info!

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In the lower set of paintings above, the right most on the top row, the middle row, and the left most on the bottom row “might” refer to cismontanus junco, or at least to how they are described in the literature. The right most bird on the middle row was the reddest junco I have ever encountered and I watched it molt into a typical looking female type Slate-colored Junco over the winter.

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Mark, I LOVE your junco illustrations! Now I am all excited to check out the juncos in my yard this winter and compare them to these plates. Last winter and spring I noticed there was quite a lot of variation in color in the juncos coming around. I have a Slate-colored Junco coming to my feeder in Olympia right now; I think they are such nice-looking birds.

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I think I have a cross that is visiting my feeder near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Is it a hybrid? What should I do to document it? Would anyone be interested in the documentation? I have some pictures but my camera isn’t able to focus clearly on the bird. The photos can be found here:

http://s850.photobucket.com/albums/ab65/buckskinhawk/

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I saw a bird here in central Indiana that must have been a dark eyed junco, but it definitely had a dark gray bill and a light eye streak. I also noticed that the black feathers on the back seemed to be edged in an almost silver color.

Any ideas?

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Hello,
Was reading your article on Dark eyed juncos and was hopping you could help with mine.
I been trying to ID this Junco since November 1 and need some help. I’m located in Clarion Co Pa and want to close the books on last years birds. I have a flock of 20+ and three have different markings then the Dark Gray and light gray Juncos. Any info would be appreciated.
Thanks, Mark Moore

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Have observed these “hybrids” in my yard in Morris, CT (near Litchfield). After wondering if there was a cross between the junco and white throated sparrow, I found this post and was gratified to know it’s not my imagination.

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