Friday 13 April 2018

East Budleigh Italian Sparrow

Since early November 2017 a male Sparrow showing characteristics of Italian Sparrow Passer italiae has been residing in East Budleigh with a House Sparrow flock. The bird was first found by local home owner and wildlife enthusiast Dave W and identified as a possible Italian Sparrow by local birder Chris Townend, who after careful liaison with locals, announced the news on Devon Birds on 11th Nov.

Possible Italian Sparrow in East Budleigh (c) Chris Townend - 16/12/17

Italian Sparrow is now treated as a full species, but relatively recent DNA research confirmed what many thought, that the species originated from hybridisation between House and Spanish Sparrows. They can be found throughout most of Italy, being one of the commonest birds in the country, with smaller numbers also breeding in France, Greece, Switzerland and Slovenia in regions neighbouring Italy. They're considered to be quite a sedentary species, although ringing studies have shown some sort of northward movement in the autumn. To cloudy matters though, House and Spanish Sparrows also hybridise in North Africa, but these aren't considered Italian Sparrows.

There have been several UK sightings of male Sparrows resembling Italian Sparrow over the years, some looking pretty convincing but others not so. The East Budleigh bird could well be described as being the most complete-looking candidate to date. Other recent records include single males in Cambridgeshire in November 2017, North Norfolk in August 2013, then again during the next two autumns, and  Hampshire in May 2014. There are many theories as to what these birds actually are and why they keep popping up. Are they simply odd House Sparrows? TreexHouse Sparrow hybrids? The results of a female Spanish Sparrow or two lurking in UK House Sparrow flocks? True Italian Sparrows? No one really knows.

Due to the complexity of this relatively new species and all the uncertainty around its identification, there have been no accepted British records of Italian Sparrow. In response to the submission of the above listed Norfolk bird, BBRC decided upon a 'Not Proven' verdict, although used the following wording in their published reply; 

"Ultimately, it was decided that while there was nothing wrong with the plumage of this individual, a 1st record of this species would require DNA evidence and it was unfortunate that this eluded us on this occasion"

This gave Chris an idea. He contacted me around Christmas last year, and once I'd obtained all the necessary paperwork and permission from the Special Methods Technical Panel of the BTO's Ringing Committee, a couple of weeks ago the green light was given for me to trap, ring, and remove three flank feathers from the East Budleigh possible Italian Sparrow for the purpose of DNA analysis. Approved special method projects like this always come with strict guidelines and rules, all of which I ensured were adhered to throughout the whole process.

Thanks to the kindness of local home owner Dave W, and almost ideal mist netting weather conditions, the morning of Monday 9th April saw the first attempt take place in a private East Budleigh garden. Amazingly a mere 45 minutes and three House Sparrows into the session, the possible Italian Sparrow flew into the only mist net set. No tapes or sound lures were used.  The bird was quickly extracted, ringed, processed (with a multitude of biometrics taken), three feathers were then carefully removed and the bird was briefly photographed for research/identification purposes, before being released.

In short, the bird looked as good in the hand for Italian Sparrow as it does in the field. I'm not going to go into great detail here, but I do have a couple of comments to make regarding the above photos and following my in-hand observations.

1/ Although Sparrows do tend to have slightly longer upper mandibles, this bird clearly has a slight deformity with an even longer and more hook-tipped upper mandible than expected. It hurt more than any Sparrow I've ever handled before that's for sure!

2/ The chestnut crown, as can be seen in the middle photo above, showed lots of buff flecking throughout. It wasn't grey and was only present at the very tips of the feathers. Sparrows often show pale fringing to crown feathers, particularly early in the season, so the presence of this is not at all surprising.

For anyone interested, the possible Italian Sparrow is still present today in the same general area. For viewing directions see Chris's original Devon Birds post here;

I just want to again thank Chris Townend for being the catalyst of this project, the home owner Dave for his hospitality, bird ringers Mike (my trainer) and Peter (a local A ringer) for accompanying me during this ringing session, and all the other individuals and organisations who offered their support and/or advice during the build up. Of course special thanks and recognition must go to the BTO for allowing this exciting and potentially highly educational development to take place, for which I've been humbled to be a part of.

See also Chris's post about Monday on his blog Cream Tea Birding.


  1. Great write up Steve, looking forward to hearing the results

    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for the kind words, and yes, I really am too. I honestly don't know what they are going to come back as which makes it even more exciting for me - I usually have a bit of an idea!

  2. Excellent explanation. I’m so pleased for you to have had this opportunity. Can’t wait to hear the results. Exciting times!

    1. Thank you Spencer that's very kind of you, and yes, I feel really privileged to have been given the opportunity to handle such a special and smart bird.

  3. Hi! i am interested in the results. can you tell us, please? best regards