Friday 13 April 2018

East Budleigh Sparrow DNA

On the 3rd November 2017, good friend and fellow naturalist Dave W sent me a photo of an "odd" looking sparrow that he had photographed in his East Budleigh garden. Dave is always good at noticing anything out of the ordinary, so I was keen to view his photos. My first thoughts were that it seemed to fit the plumage of an Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae), a species originating from the hybridisation of House and Spanish Sparrows and considered by some to be a full species. I excitedly requested further photos. 
Ironically, Italian Sparrow was a species Dave was unfamiliar with as it was not illustrated in his first edition Collins Bird Guide. I was grateful for the opinion of Devon birder Tim Worfolk, who illustrated the Italian Sparrow plates for HBW. His comments based on the photos alone were reassuringly positive.

It was difficult to predict the interest that such a bird would have in the birding world. 
I knew there was still a big question over the bird's origin, but on plumage alone the bird looked very good. So I prepared Dave as best I could knowing there would certainly be some interest, particularly in light of the recent decision for British Ornithologists' Union (BOU) to adopt the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) World Bird List where Italian Sparrow is treated as a full species.

After final discussions with Dave W to make sure he was happy and with the re-assurance that the bird was now visiting bird feeders (provided by RSPB) that we had put up away from Dave's garden to give a more suitable public viewing area, we agreed to release the news to the wider world. I did this through Twitter and the Devon Birds website on 11th Nov 2017 therefore allowing anyone the opportunity to see this interesting bird.

The "East Budleigh Sparrow" has since received a steady flow of visitors from various parts of the country. Thanks must go to Dave (for first noticing the bird), the good will of many of Dave's immediate neighbours, the RSPB for the feeders and the very understanding East Budleigh residents.

It is not the first time that a sparrow resembling an Italian Sparrow has been seen in the UK. A number of records have been reported from Hertfordshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire at least. However, none appear to look quite as clean and pure on plumage alone when compared to the East Budleigh bird.

In 2018, once interest from birders had waned, an application was made to the BTO to trap the bird and take a DNA sample (3 flank feathers), with a view to hopefully finding out more about its true origin. Permission was granted from the BTO and Dave agreed for the bird to be caught in his garden where it was trapped in a mist net on the 9th April 2018. The bird was caught with minimal fuss and processed very swiftly  thanks to the efforts of a very professional small team of licensed ringers, led by Steve Waite. 
See Steve Waite's account HERE

The feather sample has now been sent to Prof Martin Collinson of Aberdeen University, who has now become the British guru on such avian DNA tests. 

My understanding is that the DNA tests are unlikely to be able to show 100% Italian vs Spanish, but hopefully it will be able to confirm if either of the bird's immediate parents were a House Sparrow, or not!

Whatever the outcome of the results, it is certainly an interesting bird and it will be great to find out the story behind its origin.  
If you wish to see the bird, it is still present as of the 14th April at least and seems to be showing interest in the female House Sparrows. 
Please view only from the designated areas on the map at the bottom of the page.

Molecular analyses found that italiae possesses DNA from both Spanish (P. hispaniolensis) and House (P.domesticus) Sparrows. Nevertheless, it is morphologically distinct from both parent species, and has reached species level and is now treated as a distinct species by some taxonomy groups. From Handbook of Birds of the World Alive

Possible Italian Sparrow: East Budleigh, April 9th 2018

The head area showed some paler flecking.
On closer inspection this was buff in colour and there were no obvious grey feathers coming through the crown.

Though House Sparrows have a slightly down curved upper mandible, this is clearly much longer than normal.
Such bill abnormalities are not uncommon in the wild with various passerines

Steve Waite taking bill measurements of the bird

Hopefully some of the questions as to the bird's true identity will be answered from these feathers and the associated DNA

East Budleigh Sparrow by Steve Waite


  1. Brilliant Chris read both yours and Steve accounts, look forward to the DNA results!

  2. Great write up Chris. Really excited to hear the results.

  3. Many thanks for the positive comments chaps - Whatever the outcome, it will certainly be interesting!