Sparrow pride

In 1868 somebody called C. J. Maynard was walking Ipswich Beach in Massachusetts when he did what such people did in the those days and shot a sparrow. He thought it a Baird’s Sparrow, which just shows how much they knew about such things in those days. Later, in 1872, he decided it was a new species for science and named it after the location the poor thing came to its end, thank goodness it wasn’t shot on Dead Horse Ranch (yes it exists!) else we would have had a more entertaining name all round.

Wind forwards a good few years and, after enduring the blender of scientific examination, its DNA gave the game away. It was not a good species but had some genetic link with Savannah Sparrow. It’s full-member badge was pulled and it became just another Savannah Sparrow – super common, not under threat as a species so do what you like with it. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with classifying anything that has multiple forms into subspecies. The fact that the morphologically distinctive sparrow is just about endemic as a breeder to Sable Island, Nova Scotia makes no difference. Sure it gets some vague red flag about being vulnerable but we know what that means, nothing in real terms, just figurative hand wringing until it slips into the extinct void that we push so much of our precious wildlife into.

So where is this going? Well if I was premier of Nova Scotia, besides making shotgun shells $10 a pop to make the place quieter, I would shout from the rooftops about our endemic sparrow and I would lobby whoever I needed to to get it re-split and I would call it Sable Island Sparrow as some already do. Taxonomy is an impure science, DNA changed everything but is not really a great field mark. Nevertheless, taxonomists are constantly rethinking the species taxonomic order and you have more chance of pulling six lottery numbers than you do predicting the next six species that any updated checklist will start with.

This is a good thing though, as we need to keep moving with the times and making our checklist as evolutionarily accurate as possible, even if it upsets some folks. We also need to consider the larger picture for the benefit of all birds; drop subspecies, promote everything that is morphologically identifiable to the same level and instigate unbreakable protection where it is needed. I don’t think that Sable Island Sparrow is in any real danger at present but a decent June storm could change that, call it an act of nature. If the worst did come to the worst then at least our sparrow could be listed under a full name before having ‘E’ appended to it.

Now, for you delectation, here is a selection of Savannah and Sable Island Sparrow images from far-flung savannahs, all identified without the need to resort to DNA sequencing.

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from Nova Scotia (Chebogue)

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from Quebec

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Sable Island Sparrow

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Savannah Sparrow from California

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Sable Island Sparrows


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