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Mystery sparrows in Somaliland

June 2010

On the Birding Africa expedition to Somaliland, we noticed two different types of sparrows in the coastal town Loyada.

The first were the nominate Somali Sparrows (Passer castanopterus castanopterus), the males of which are distinguished but their all chestnut crown, grey ground colour to the streaked mantle (showed variation and some had very little grey), chestnut wing coverts and off-white underparts (note that this is not as yellow as described in many references, including in Redman et al.'s Birds of the Horn of Africa, an excellent publication which was of invaluable help to us on our entire trip).

The second type of sparrow resembled House Sparrow, distinguished from Somali Sparrow by the whiter underparts (no trace of yellow), grey central crown, dark centres to the greater upperwing coverts and a wing bar formed by white tips to the median coverts. However, unlike typical House Sparrows, these types had broad chestnut supercilia, which met above the bill to form a chestnut forehead, and the ground colour of the mantle was grey (in other words, the grey extended in an unbroken striped from the centre of the crown, down the nape and across the streaked mantle and merged with the grey back and rump). These birds seemed to be breeding -- they were calling a lot (the calls of House Sparrow and Somali Sparrow seem to be very similar), were seen flying into empty houses, and one male was carrying nesting material.

One possibility is that these birds were hybrids between Somali and House Sparrows, with the chestnut on the crown and grey mantle features indicating Somali, and the whiter underparts (no trace of yellow), grey central crown, dark centres to the greater upperwing coverts and a wing bar formed by white tips to the median coverts all indicating House Sparrow. However, another option is that perhaps these birds were showing features of the rufidorsalis subspecies of House Sparrow, which seems to show more rufous on the supercilium, as shown in a by Jugal Tiwari from Eritrea (available on AFBID) that presumably shows this subspecies (see here). However, the grey ground colour to the mantle doesn't fit with rufidorsalis. Also, a literature search on the features of rufidorsalis in the main references (main references of what? Do you mean field guides?) seems confusing as the amount of rufous on the supercilium and neck sides is described and illustrated differently in different books. Perhaps, “Also, a literature search on the features of rufidorsalis revealed disagreement among the major reference works (e.g. list references) as to the amount of rufous shown on the supercilium and sides of neck.

We'd be interested in feedback (to callan@birdingafrica.com) from anyone who knows this subspecies well or has seen specimen of it.

Ash and Miskell's 1998 Birds of Somalia only mentions 1 previous record of House Sparrow from Somaliland (subspecies niloticus from Berbera in 1905). Further south, the subspecies indicus was also recorded from Muqdisho once and a hybrid between House and Somali Sparrow was recorded (Ash and Miskell, 1988, House Sparrow Passer domesticus in Somalia, Scopus 11:96-97).


Above: Somali Sparrow, Loyada © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.


Above: Somali Sparrow, Loyada © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.


Above: Somali Sparrow, Saylac on the coast near Loyada © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.

Somali Sparrow © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com
Above: Somali Sparrow, near Bohootleh © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.


Above: Mystery Sparrow, Loyada © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.


Above: Mystery Sparrow, Loyada © Callan Cohen & Michael Mills www.birdingafrica.com.

About Birding Africa

Birding Africa is a specialist birding tour company customising tours for both world listers and more relaxed holiday birders.  We combine interests in mammals, butterflies, dragonflies, botany and other natural history aspects and will guide you to Africa's and Madagascar's most diverse birding destinations. Our guides' knowledge of African birds and birding areas is our greatest strength and together we have rediscovered species, shared exciting observations with the birding community and had a fun time exploring our home continent.  We've even written two acclaimed guide books on where to find Southern Africa's and Madagascar's best birds. Birding is more than our passion, it's our lifestyle, and we are dedicated to making professional, best value trips filled with endemic species and unique wildlife experiences. Since 1997, we've run bird watching tours in South Africa and further into Africa for individual birders, small birding groups and top international tour companies. We've run Conservation Tours in association with the African Bird Club and work with and consult for a number of other top international tour companies and the BBC Natural History Unit.

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