Illustration by Diane Pierce
Probably the most widespread sparrow, song sparrows commonly visit feeders and are responsive to pishing. In winter they may form small flocks, often with other sparrows, including the Lincoln’s, swamp, or zonotrichia. Polytypic. Length 5.8–7.5" (15–19 cm).
Identification Distinctive long, rounded tail, often flipped in flight and when landing. Broad, grayish eyebrow; broad, dark malar stripe; whitish throat. Upperparts usually streaked. Underparts whitish; streaking on sides, breast, often converge in central spot. Pinkish legs, feet. Juvenile: buffier; fine streaking.
Geographic Variation Depending on the taxonomy, 20 to more than 30 subspecies occur in the United States and Canada (with at least 4 more in Mexico). Extensive, marked variation in measurements, overall color, pattern. Identification to individual subspecies almost never possible in the field, but easy to recognize the larger geographic trends. Here they are separated into 5 subspecies groups. Perhaps most distinctive is the “Alaska Island” group: 4 subspecies resident on the Aleutian Island chain and southern Alaska east to Kodiak Island, all of which are very large (close to fox’s size), large-billed, and generally sooty-colored. No other subspecies groups approach them in size; the subspecies from the western Aleutians (e.g., maxima) are largest. The “Pacific Northwest” group is fairly large and dark sooty or dark rusty colored; streaking on the breast and flanks often has a dusky background. “California” birds (inc. heermanni and those resident on the Channel Islands) are small and dark, with distinctly marked rich reddish wings, very gray faces; sharp blackish streaking below contrasts markedly with the upperparts. “Southwestern” birds (e.g., fallax) are quite pale reddish brown with well-defined breast streaking, contrasting little with the back and wings. Typical of the “Eastern” group is the nominate, which is medium-size and fairly brown-backed with moderate contrast in breast streaking.
Similar Species See the Lincoln’s, swamp, savannah, fox, and vesper.
Voice Call: a nasal, hollow chimp; also high chips when excited. Flight note: a clear, rising seeet. Song: three or 4 short clear notes followed by a buzzy tow-wee, then a trill.
Status and Distribution Common. Winters south to northern Mexico; isolated resident population in central Mexico. Breeding: brushy areas, especially dense streamside thickets. Also occurs in lush beach vegetation, marsh edges. Winter: migratory populations tend to winter primarily in brushy areas, rank weedy fields, swampy woods; often with the swamp and Lincoln’s. In the West, the song is more closely tied to ponds or streams with lush growth. Migration: most populations are migratory; Pacific and southwestern populations generally resident. Spring early March–late April, peaking late March; fall mid-September–mid-November, peaking late October. Vagrant: Europe.
Population Stable in most portions of range. Resident populations extirpated from 2 of the Channel Islands, due to overgrazing. Degradation of salt marsh habitats around the San Francisco Bay and desert riparian habitats in the Southwest has also negatively affected certain populations.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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