Sage Sparrow Split: Sagebrush Sparrows and Bell’s Sparrows

Everybody’s talking about the exciting decision by the AOU to split the Sage Sparrow (Artemisiospiza belli) into two new species: the lame-named Bell’s Sparrow (A. belli) and the well-named Sagebrush Sparrow (A. nevadensis). While the aforementioned excited parties discuss identification of the new birds, I have a bunch of pictures!

I’ve recently been wandering around washes in the vicinity of Desert Center in Riverside County, California where I’ve been lucky to encounter a few of the old Sage Sparrows. Range is oftentimes an easy way to determine where one species ends and another begins, however, both Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows spend part of the year in this part of the country. To complicate matters, the Mojave subspecies of the new Bell’s Sparrow, A. b. canescens, is actually quite similar to the Sagebrush Sparrow in appearance! For a brief article on differentiating between these two, check out these guidelines by Peter Pyle.

To sum it up, Mojave Bell’s has both less streaking on the back as well as a larger, darker area on the cheek than the Sagebrush Sparrow. According to Pyle’s findings, these field marks should be especially obvious in fresh birds such as all of the birds I photographed below.

Bird 1:

Bird 2:

Bird 3:

Bird 4:

Bird 5:

Bird 6:

Bird 7:

Bird 8:

Bird 9:

Bird 10:

Bird 11:

Bird 12:

Bird 13:

Bird 14:

Bird 15:


So there you have fifteen examples of Sagebrush Sparrows and Bell’s Sparrows. How many of each would you tally on your checklist?

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