This past Friday, I was privileged enough to get the opportunity to visit a local backyard and get some half decent images of a Harris’s Sparrow. The sparrow was very retiring and it took roughly one and half hours to locate the bird in a yard side hedge. But once I found it, the show was on. Once I saw the bird, the distinctive black face cinched the identification, as it the only North American sparrow with a black hood and gray sides of the head. The little black-faced bird popped into view several times, which was such a treat even if the light was pretty cruddy and the distance too far. The Harris’s Sparrow was feeding upon cracked corn spread over the ground and also on birch seeds that had collected on the corrugated barn roof.
Harris’s Sparrow is observed in Montana about 10 times a year with Missoula being an area of relative density of sightings. This probably data anomaly most likely amounts to observation bias, rather any sort of preference by the Harris’s Sparrow. The peak month of Harris’s Sparrow observation is December, and most of the records are classified as transient or over-wintering birds.
After viewing the bird for about half an hour, I was on way home happy as I basked in post-birding glow. I got to wondering though, “Who the heck is Harris, anyways?” Edward Harris was a contemporary and benefactor of John James Audubon. He funding, at least partially, the publication of Birds of America for Audubon. He accompanied Audubon on his Gulf Coast expedition in 1837 and again during his Missouri River journey in 1843. Harris collected his namesake sparrow on May 4, 1843 near present-day St. Joseph, Missouri. Audubon quickly named the bird Friningilla harrisii, or Harris’s Sparrow. Later, it was learned that Thomas Nuttall had beaten the pair to the sparrow in 1834, and Nuttall had previously named it Fringilla querula, or the Mourning Sparrow. However, the common name assigned by Audubon won approval as the common name.