A Chipping Sparrow with Two Heads?

(This column was first published in the October 20, 1997 Buffalo News. Note: Photographs are included in the column postscript as well as the main text.)

     Late last spring I spent about fifteen hours over a three day period sitting in a Monroe County backyard watching a bird feeding station.  Coming and going to and from the feeders were cardinals and house finches, downy woodpeckers and chickadees, chipping sparrows and even an indigo bunting.  A chipmunk joined grackles, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves and house sparrows below the feeding trays.  In the recently mown field beyond the lawn yellow and chestnut-sided warblers searched the grass for seeds and insects.

    But I never saw what I was looking for.  I was watching for a chipping sparrow with two heads.

    I had learned of this remarkable possibility from an Internet bird chat line.  The message called attention to the report, gave the address and added, "I question this but it might be worth checking out."

    Despite that disclaimer, I phoned the Hilton couple, Bob and Grace Carson, to ask about their sighting. Yes, they had seen the bird several times and had photographed it through their kitchen window. They were afraid, however, that even taken with a telephoto lens the pictures would not be definitive. Would I come to confirm their observation? I went -- I watched -- but I failed to see the bird.

    A two-headed bird would be the wildlife equivalent of conjoined human twins and would be at least as rare.  Bird abnormalities have been reported, of course. A 1934 study of 100,000 starlings, for example, turned up over five percent with various deformities but they were things like malformed bills, unusual size or missing eyes, legs, feet or toenails.* Other observers have noted wild birds with extra pairs of legs or wings -- a phenomenon called duplicity that is also found occasionally in domestic fowl. But I turned up no record of a two-headed bird.

    However, I did come across an interesting and detailed description of a two-headed black rat snake. The ethologists who studied the snake called it IM, the letters representing instinct and mind.  Gordon Burghart writes,** "The snake's frequent conflicts over prey, usually mice, vividly reminded me of the perennial conflict between those two concepts.... Regardless of whether one or both heads struck, both heads often simultaneously attempted to swallow the prey."

    The Carsons described their sparrow as having the second head facing backwards, the bills thus pointing in opposite directions. Grace told me how it twisted so that each head could feed in turn. Unfortunately, Bob's later reports indicated that the second head became inactive and drooped lifeless down the bird's back.

    I never saw any of this although I missed one reported appearance by only ten minutes. I did see a few feathers on one bird's nape raised by the breeze and I tried to convince myself that was what the Carsons were seeing.

    But now finally the photographs have been printed and Bob has forwarded copies. Although none are ideal, I believe that they confirm the Carsons' observations of this bizarre anomaly.  The best shows the bird perched opposite a house finch at a tube feeder, its body facing away from us, one head turned to the left, the other to the right. The left head is fully plumaged with the red cap of an adult chippy, the right retaining the characteristics of an immature bird.  (Note that the image included here is not as clear as the original photograph from which it was copied.) In two photos taken later that immature plumaged head has lost its vitality and lies lifeless against its back.

    After a week of those late May visits the bird failed to return. By now it has almost certainly died, but its brief appearance at the Carson feeder represents an extraordinary ornithological first.

* L. E. Hicks (1934) "Individual and sexual varations in the European Starling," Bird Banding 5: 103-118.

** "Cognitive Ethology and Critical Anthropomorphism: A Snake with Two Heads and Hognose Snakes that Play Dead," in Carolyn A. Ristau, ed., Cognitive Ethology: The Minds of Other Animals (Hillsdale, New Jersey: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1991) pp. 57-59.


    On November 5, 1997, several weeks after this column appeared, the two best photographs of the sparrow were enhanced by Don Trainor, a University at Buffalo graphic arts specialist. They are included with this postscript. Although the improved pictures are still far from perfect -- recall that they were taken by telephoto lens through a kitchen window -- they appear to me to be definitive.

    Unfortunately -- or perhaps fortunately for the little chipping sparrow -- the photos do not confirm my earlier belief that it had two heads. The second appears to be a ball of some kind of woolly material that gives only the appearance of another head.

    What confirm this reanalysis for me are two facts: (1) No bill appears on the "second head" in either picture. And (2) In the second picture which was taken several days later (when the second "head" appeared to have "died") that "head" not only lies down the sparrow's back but it has rolled around from the right shoulder to the left and gray feathers show to the right where the strange material had earlier been stuck.

    Now that the false second head has been identified, I am able to look back on how the Carsons and I had allowed ourselves to be misled. We should have been immediately put off by two things. First, this is an adult chipping sparrow which meant that it is in its second year. To manage that full year -- including two migrations -- with that additional burden would have been virtually impossible. And second, the additional head should also have been that of an adult bird. Now I can see how my enthusiasm and the seeming photographic evidence, no matter how foggy, overwhelmed those very serious concerns.

    It is interesting to note, however, what looks very much like an eye in the lower black stripe of the first picture. This osceli is, according to the photographic specialist, almost certainly a visual aberration.

    So the Carsons and I lost our chance of announcing a real first for ornithology. That loss is at least balanced by the fact that my dismal prognosis for the bird's future is most likely wrong. I expect that after a time the material would have freed itself from the bird's feathers -- during molt if at no other time -- and the little sparrow would be free of its irritating "extra head." The evidence of the second photograph suggests that that process had already started.

    In any case, once again I have managed a near miss. Most of us know the feeling that the great ones always seem to get away, but that is one of the challenges of bird watching.

Second Postscript

    On June 23, 1998 bird bander Bob McKinney of Rochester, New York sent me the following e-mail message:

Hi Gerry, I may have the answer to your Chipping Sparrow with two heads. This morning I caught a Chipping Sparrow with an enormous, ugly growth on the side of the head. I have never seen anything like it. The bird certainly would not have a normal liklihood of survival so I released it immediately. The growth was almost as large as the head itself. Anyone seeing this bird may very well suspect it had two heads. I didn't enjoy handling the bird and thoroughly washed my hands after handling it. Thought you would be interested.

    While this is almost certainly not the same bird I saw a year earlier -- surely that bird could not have survived even our mild winter of 1997-1998 --, it does suggest another possibility for the appearance of the bird observed at the Carson's feeder.