Illustration by Diane Pierce
This sparrow (monotypic genus) feeds on bare or sandy ground. When flushed, it flies to a high perch. Few other sparrows are likely to fly high overhead during daylight. They call both when flushing and when flying overhead; occur singly or in flocks up to 50. Polytypic. Length 6.5" (17 cm).
Identification Largest open-country sparrow. Long, rounded tail with prominent white corners. Adult: distinctive harlequin face pattern of black, white, and chestnut. Bright white underparts marked only with dark central breast spot. Juvenile: duller face; fine, black streaks on breast, sides, and crown lost gradually through fall.
Geographic Variation Two subspecies show weak variation. Eastern grammacus darker overall with wider black back streaks than western strigatus.
Similar Species None.
Voice Call: sharp tsik, often a rapid series and frequently delivered in flight. High chips when excited. Song: begins with 2 loud, clear notes, followed by a series of rich, melodious notes and trills and unmusical buzzes. Sings one of the longest sparrow songs.
Status and Distribution Fairly common. Primarily west of the Mississippi; once bred as far east as New York and western Maryland. Rare migrant throughout the East, mainly in fall. Prairies, roadsides, farms, open woodlands, mesas. Vagrant: accidental to Alaska, northern Canada, and Europe.
Population Stable, though eastern populations are declining and it is extirpated from former breeding areas in the East.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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