Friday 9 May 2014

A Possible Italian Sparrow Reported in Hampshire this Week - May 2014

Depending which side of the fence you sit, Italian Sparrow Passer italiae is either species in its own right, a race of Spanish sparrow P. hispaniolensis or a 'stable hybrid swarm' as a result of mixing between House P. domestics and Spanish sparrow. I really don't know what to think on its status but when I saw a report of a probable Italian Sparrow, just up the road in East Meon, Hampshire, I decided to go and have a look. The bird was a male and the picture that was submitted with the report looked very good for the species, thats if it is one, so it was worth a quick visit.

The bird was first reported on 5th May, but it was not until 9th May that I was able to go, by which time some observers were already casting doubts on its identity. The suggestions were that it might be a hybrid between House and Tree sparrow, but undeterred by these claims I decided to go. The key features to look out for in male Italian Sparrow are;
  • a brown crown, as in Spanish sparrow;
  • white ear-coverts, again as in Spanish sparrow;
  • upperparts and black throat/breast patch as in house sparrow.
Female/first winter Italian sparrows are indistinguishable from female house sparrows.

Reported Italian Sparrow - East Meon, Hampshire

I arrived at the site as the bird was sat deep in a pyracantha bush, so it was visible but only just. However after a couple of minutes of tantalising glimpses it jumped out into full view. My first impression was that it looked good, the crown was chestnut, the cheeks were white and there was the beginning of a white supercilium in front of the eye.

Reported Italian Sparrow (left side) - East Meon, Hampshire

The back and mantle also appeared a richer chestnut colour than the resident house sparrows and the black throat and breast patch fitted well. There was a slight flaw in the white cheek patch on the left side of the bird, in that a small black feather appeared to be present. Looking at the right side the same black spot was not present.

Reported Italian Sparrow (Right side) - East Meon, Hampshire

Head on the the features that indicate Italian sparrow show very well, the chestnut crown, white supercilium, white cheeks and black throat and breast. But on closer inspection there is evidence of some grey feathers in the crown.

 Reported Italian Sparrow - East Meon, Hampshire

The grey crown feathers are more evident in the image below. Initially I thought that this was just fringing to the tips of the feathers, which is typical on sparrows early in the season. The feathers on this bird appeared more prominent than just fringing with several feathers appearing to be grey.

Reported Italian Sparrow - East Meon, Hampshire

It is difficult to know what is going on with this bird, it appears to show a variety of features that make it look good for Italian Sparrow. However, the small dark spot on the cheek and the extensive grey in the crown suggest that there maybe both house and tree sparrow in its parentage, which seems to be the preferred choice by many birders. I am not totally convinced by this prognosis since the colouration of the back and mantle seem too rich for this combination, and the beginning of a white supercilium in front of the eye could suggest some Spanish. Whilst I was watching this bird I noted a second bird that whilst essentially a typical house sparrow did have extremely white cheeks and an extended white collar, so it would appear that something may have been added to the gene pool in this population.

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