Physical characteristics: Song sparrows are medium- to large-sized sparrows that vary greatly in physical characteristics due to its large geographical range. They have streaked plumage (feathers), a long tail with a rounded tail tip, a brown to light rusty rounded head with a paler median crown stripe, a broad, grayish stripe above the eyes and very visible brown cheek stripes. They also have a whitish throat, stout bill, a brownish, grayish, or brownish gray patchy back, a heavily streaked breast with a dark central spot, whitish under parts, and pinkish legs and feet. Males and females look alike. Young song sparrows have brown crowns, heavily streaked under parts, and are more buff colored than adults. Adults are 5.75 to 7.50 inches (14.6 to
19.1 centimeters) long, with a wingspan of 8.25 to 12.5 inches (21.0 to 31.8 centimeters) and a weight of about 0.7 ounces (20 grams).
Geographic range: They live along the western coast of Alaska, Canada, central Mexico, Baja California, and the western coast of the United States and throughout most of the northern, west-central and east-central parts of the United States. They breed from the Aleutian Island, along the southern coast of Alaska, east across southern Nunavut, northern Ontario, and central Quebec to southwest Newfoundland, and south to Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Most of the northern breeding birds migrate in the fall to southern Florida, the Gulf Coast, northern Mexico, and southern Baja California.
Habitat: Song sparrows are located in open brushy and shrubby areas, thickets, riparian (along the riverbank) scrublands, weedy fields, and grassy areas; often near ponds, streams, marshes, and seacoasts, especially where thickets occur. In winter, they are found in brush lands and woodland edges.
Diet: Song sparrows feed mostly on insects (and their larvae [LARvee]) and other invertebrates in the summer, but switch to mostly seeds in the winter. They also eat grains, berries, and some fruits, mostly from the ground or by picking food off of trees, bushes, and other vegetation. Coastal species catch small mollusks and crustaceans (hard-shelled creatures).
Behavior and reproduction: Song sparrows prefer to stay in low vegetation. When on the ground, they hop or run. When singing, they perch in a tree, bush, or on top of a weed where they are easily seen. They sing loud, pleasant, musical phrases; usually whistling two to three clear notes, followed by a trill. There is much song variation with the typical song being three or four short clear notes followed by a buzzy "tow-wee," then a trill. Their hollow call is a "chimp" or "what." When alarmed, they give a high, hard "tik." When flying, they pump their tail up and down and give out a thin "seeet." Territories are defended with chases and fights. In winter, they form into loose flocks that contain many sparrow species.
They prefer living alone and in pairs, but may be found in small loose flocks in winter, often with other sparrow species. They are generally monogamous birds, but can be polygynous (puh-LIJ-uh-nus; having more than one mate). Males aggressively defend their territory, often fighting with other males. Their bulky cup-shaped nests are made of leaves, bark strips, grasses, stems, and other plants; and lined with fine materials. Song sparrows usually place nests on the ground, among grasses, or in a low-lying bush or thicket. Nests are usually near a stream. Females lay three to six eggs that are greenish white with reddish brown markings. Nesting is done from late February to August. The incubation period is ten to fourteen days, and the fledgling period is seven to fourteen days. The pair feeds and takes care of the young. Two to three broods are possible each year, with four broods possible in southern areas.
Song sparrows and people: There is no known significant relationship between song sparrows and people.
Conservation status: Song sparrows are not threatened. They are often hurt by parasitism from the brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in the song sparrows' nests so that the song sparrow takes care of the cowbird's young, neglecting its own chicks. ■
Resident Breeding Nonbreeding
Snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis)
Resident Breeding Nonbreeding
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