Bird of the Month June 2020

Photo by Terry Thomas

Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia


Song sparrows vary dramatically across America. Typically, though, they have a grayish face with lots of rusty brown striping. Wings and tail are russet brown as well. They are medium-sized sparrows with rounded heads and long, unnotched tails and, most notably, a streaky brown and white chest. Sometimes the stripes on the chest come together to form a dark spot. Cornell’s All About Birds describes them as: “A rich, russet-and-gray bird with bold streaks down its white chest, the Song Sparrow is one of the most familiar North American sparrows: it’s one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area. If it perches on a low shrub, leans back, and sings a stuttering, clattering song, so much the better.”

Behavior and Habitat

The Song Sparrow is one of the most widespread and common sparrows in North America. Typically, they prefer to be near water such as a river or marsh, but that isn’t always the case. They are really habitat generalists and that accounts, in part, for being so widespread and common.

Song Sparrows do prefer brushy habitat but it can be in, “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.” (All About Birds Website).

Song Sparrows are also food generalists. They eat huge numbers of all types of invertebrates but also feast heavily on seeds of many types and berries as well. Because of this, they are common visitors to bird feeders.

While the male and the female Song Sparrow select the nest site (from the ground up to 15 feet and often near human habitation), the female builds the small sturdy cup herself. Then she will lay from one to six eggs. Depending on the location, Song Sparrows may raise only one brood or up to seven broods in a single season.

Song Sparrows typically stay low to the ground and forage secretively. However, males usually sing from the tips of branches. They respond readily to recorded calls and can be located this way.

Cool Facts from All About Birds website

  • 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.
  • 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 preferred.
  • 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 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.
  • The oldest known Song Sparrow was at least 11 years, 4 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Colorado.


Similar Species

Welcome to the world of sparrows! Sparrow identification can be a real challenge. While the Song Sparrow can be distinctive, there are species similar enough to require the observer to look carefully at details. The Savannah Sparrow is smaller with a notched tail and usually sports a yellow stripe above the eye. A Lincoln’s Sparrow has a buff wash on the chest, a more peaked head and a pale eye ring. Fox Sparrows are larger and bulkier than Song Sparrows and often have a much redder plumage. They have heavily streaked plumage as well. Vesper Sparrows are smaller than Song Sparrows with a smaller bill. They have a strong white eye ring though and lack the heavy striping on the head.

When and where found at Camas NWR

Look for Song Sparrows throughout Camas NWR, but especially in brushy areas near water.


“Song Sparrows are widespread and common across most of the continent, but populations declined by over 30% between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 130 million with 88% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 42% in Canada, and 6% in Mexico. The species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Song Sparrow is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These birds 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.”

Text by Terry Thomas. Source:

Photo by Terry Thomas.