The Ghost of John James Audubon’s Past

Did Townsend's Bunting return from the dead?

It was standing on an isolated spit of land off the frigid waters of Lake Ontario, trying to blend into a group of sparrows. But this thing was no sparrow.

“I don’t know what prompted me to take its picture,” recounts photographer and novice birder Kyle Blaney, who spied the bird in the Prince Edward Point National Wildlife Area. “Something struck me as not quite right.”

In fact, it was unlike anything Blaney had ever seen. It was small and brown, like a sparrow, but had a larger bill and unfamiliar white bars on its wings. He rolled down his car window and shot a few photos. Within seconds, the creature flew across the road, vanishing into mist. “As far as I know, no one ever saw it again,” Blaney says. That evening, he downloaded the photos and tried to identify the mysterious bird. When nothing he found in his eight field guides showed the same color patterns and overall shape, he posted the pictures to several birding websites. Much debate ensued about hybrids and mutations, but birders across the globe were stumped.

It was Denis Lepage, senior scientist at Bird Studies Canada, who first noticed a resemblance between Blaney’s mystery bird and a nearly two centuries-old lithograph from John James Audubon’s The Birds of America. On May 11th, 1833, a man named John Bunting had shot and killed a small, brownish bird in Pennsylvania; he brought the bloody, still-warm corpse to his friend Audubon, who dubbed it Townsend’s Bunting, stuffed it, and stashed it in a cabinet.

After Audubon’s death, the stuffed bird ultimately made its way to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, where it was catalogued but, despite attempts, never formally identified. Lepage believes the original Townsend’s Bunting was likely a Dickcissel with a number of pigment abnormalities. Even your standard Dickcissel is a rare sight in Ontario. The odds of Blaney having stumbled across one with the same exact variations in plumage as Audubon’s bird?

“Beyond astronomical,” Blaney says. “Hundreds of millions to one.”

By now, the original Townsend’s Bunting lies moldering in a museum drawer, too decomposed to compare with Blaney’s photos. Blaney's not convinced of the connection even though Lepage thinks it's a match, proving that at least the mystery of the bird is alive and well.

Read Blaney’s account of his experience spying the bird, and Lepage’s explanation of the bird’s connection to Townsend’s Bunting.

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