Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by
David Allen Sibley
- The Song Sparrow is found throughout most of North
America, but the birds of different areas can look
surprisingly different. Song Sparrows of the Desert
Southwest are pale, while those in the Pacific Northwest
are dark and heavily streaked. Song Sparrows of Alaska’s
Aleutian Islands chain are even darker, and they’re
huge: one-third longer than the eastern birds, and
weighing twice as much.
- Some scientists think that Song Sparrows of wet,
coastal areas have darker plumage as a defense against
feather mites and other decay agents that thrive in
humid climates. The darker plumage contains more of a
pigment called melanin, which makes feathers tougher and
harder to degrade than lighter, unpigmented feathers.
- The range of the Song Sparrow is continuous from the
Aleutians to the eastern United States. There’s also an
isolated population that lives on the plateau of central
Mexico, about 900 miles from the next closest
population. These Song Sparrows have white throats and
chests with black streaks.
- Song Sparrows seem to have a clear idea of what
makes a good nest. Field researchers working for many
years on the same parcels of land have noticed that some
choice spots – the base of a rose bush, or a particular
hollow under a hummock of grass, for example – get used
over and over again, even when entirely new birds take
over the territory.
- Despite the large differences in size and coloration
across the Song Sparrow’s range, genetic divergence is
low. High rates of immigration and emigration may keep
populations genetically similar, while local selective
conditions maintain the physical differences.
- Like many other songbirds, the male Song Sparrow
uses its song to attract mates as well as defend its
territory. Laboratory studies have shown that the female
Song Sparrow is attracted not just to the song itself,
but to how well it reflects the ability of the male to
learn. Males that used more learned components in their
songs and that better matched their song tutors (the
adult bird they learned their songs from) were
- The Song Sparrow, like most other North American
breeding birds, uses increasing day length as a cue for
when to come into breeding condition. But, other cues
can be important too, such as local temperature and food
abundance. A study found that male Song Sparrows from
the coast of Washington state came into breeding
condition two months earlier than Song Sparrows in the
nearby mountains, where the daylight changes were the
same, but temperatures were cooler and trees budded out
two months later.
- Song Sparrows normally only lay one clutch of eggs
per breeding season; however, in exceptional
circumstances, such as loss of clutches from predation
or an excess of resources, Song Sparrows have been
recorded laying as many as seven clutches in a single
breeding season and successfully rearing up to four
- The oldest known Song Sparrow lived to be 11 years,
4 months old.
Size & Shape
Song Sparrows are medium-sized and fairly bulky sparrows. For
a sparrow, the bill is short and stout and the head fairly
rounded. The tail is long and rounded, and the wings are broad.
Song Sparrows are streaky and brown with thick streaks on a
white chest and flanks. On a closer look, the head is an
attractive mix of warm red-brown and slaty gray, though these
shades, as well as the amount of streaking, vary extensively
across North America.
- Melospiza melodia adusta
- Melospiza melodia atlantica
- Melospiza melodia caurina
- Melospiza melodia cleonensis
- Melospiza melodia fallax
- Melospiza melodia goldmani
- Melospiza melodia gouldii
- Melospiza melodia graminea
- Melospiza melodia heermanni
- Melospiza melodia insignis
- Melospiza melodia kenaiensis
- Melospiza melodia maxillaris
- Melospiza melodia maxima
- Melospiza melodia melodia
- Melospiza melodia merrilli
- Melospiza melodia mexicana
- Melospiza melodia montana
- Melospiza melodia morphna
- Melospiza melodia pusillula
- Melospiza melodia rivularis
- Melospiza melodia rufina
- Melospiza melodia samuelis
- Melospiza melodia sanaka
- Melospiza melodia villai
- Melospiza melodia yuriria
Song Sparrows have a sharp chip note to indicate alarm or
anxiety; both sexes make it when excited or if predators
approach a nest. Females make a harsh chatter at their mates
during nest-building, or at a female intruding on the
territory. Young or subordinate birds make a softer,
of a Bird
Range: 15-19 cm (5.75-7.5 in)
20 g (0.7 oz)
Small (5 - 9 in)
White to buff with brown streaking on
breast, sides and flanks.
Gray and brown with black streaking.
Pattern: Striped or streaked
Pattern: Striped or streaked
- Bill Shape:
- Eye Color:
Olive, changing to dark brown with age.
Pattern: Eyeline, Striped, Streaked,
Malar or malar stripe
- Crown Color:
Brown with gray central stripe.
Color: Brown with gray central stripe.
- Nape Color:
Color: White to buff.
- Cere color:
Pattern: Short flights close to ground,
tail pumping up and down.
Range: 21-32 cm (8.25-12.5 in)
- Wing Shape:
- Tail Shape:
- Upper Tail:
- Under Tail:
- Leg Color:
- Breeding Location:
Forest edge, Open landscapes, Grassland with
scattered trees, Bushes, shrubs, and
thickets, Marshes, freshwater, Swamps,
- Breeding Type:
- Breeding Population:
- Egg Color:
Pale green with red brown markings
- Number of Eggs:
2 - 6
- Incubation Days:
12 - 14
- Egg Incubator:
- Nest Material:
Lined with fine material., Grass, forbs,
leaves, and bark strips.
Northern birds migrate
- Condition at Hatching: Naked with
sparse blackish down, eyes closed, clumsy.
- Bruant [Pinson] chanteur (French)
- Gorrión cantor (Spanish)
- Song Sparrows often have a dark spot in the center of their streaked
breast. This is a good clue that you may have a Song Sparrow, but other
species can show this mark, too – and it can be missing in some Song
Sparrows, such as in the Pacific Northwest.
- To distinguish Song Sparrow from Savannah Sparrow look for the
Savannah's yellow tinge between the eyes and bill, the shorter, notched
tail, and the typically paler plumage.
- Lincoln's Sparrows have darker gray eyestripes, buff stripes on the
sides of the throat, a buffy upper breast, and finer, crisper streaks
- Fox Sparrows are larger and usually redder overall than Song
- The pale Vesper Sparrow has a white eye-ring, white outer tail
feathers, and a small rufous patch
Widespread and common across most of the continent. Song
Sparrows have vanished from two islands off Southern
California, the result of more frequent fires and introduced
hares altering the sparrows’ habitat. Wetland losses in the
San Francisco Bay area have meant declining populations of a
saltmarsh race of the Song Sparrow in that area.
Sources used to
Construct this Page:
ISong Sparrows are found in an enormous variety of open habitats,
including tidal marshes, arctic grasslands, desert scrub, pinyon
pine forests, aspen parklands, prairie shelterbelts, Pacific rain
forest, chaparral, agricultural fields, overgrown pastures,
freshwater marsh and lake edges, forest edges, and suburbs. You may
also find Song Sparrows in deciduous or mixed woodlands.
- Arcese, Peter, Mark K. Sogge, Amy B. Marr and
Michael A. Patten. 2002. Song Sparrow (Melospiza
melodia), The Birds of North America Online (A.
Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology;
Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide
companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
- Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988.
The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
- Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Longevity Records
Song Sparrows eat mainly seeds and fruits, supplemented by many
kinds of invertebrates in summer. Prey include weevils, leaf
beetles, ground beetles, caterpillars, dragonflies, grasshoppers,
midges, craneflies, spiders, snails, and earthworms. Plant foods
include buckwheat, ragweed, clover, sunflower, wheat, rice,
blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, mulberries,
and wild cherries. Food types vary greatly depending on what’s
common across the Song Sparrow’s extensive range. In British
Columbia, Song Sparrows have even been observed picking at the
droppings of Glaucous-winged Gulls.
Song Sparrows walk or hop on the ground and flit or hop through
branches, grass, and weeds. Song Sparrows stay low and forage
secretively, but males come to exposed perches, including limbs of
small trees, to sing. Courting birds fly together, fluttering their
wings, with tails cocked up and legs dangling. Song Sparrows are
primarily monogamous, but up to 20 percent of all Song Sparrows sire
young with multiple mates each breeding season. In fall, juvenile
Song Sparrows may band together in loose flocks around berry trees
or water sources. Flight is direct and low on broad, rounded wings.
Often flies only short distances between perches or to cover,
characteristically pumping the tail downward as it flies.