Overview

Brief Summary

The Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) has a very broad geographic distribution that encompasses most of Canada and the United States south to (locally in the highlands) southern Mexico during either the breeding season or winter. This is among the most familiar birds in the northeastern and midwestern United States, where it is often seen singing heartily from a conspicuous perch or flying from bush to bush with a characteristic pumping tail motion. Numerous geographic subspecies have been described that vary substantially in size, bill shape, overall coloration and streaking (ranging from larger, darker birds in the Aleutians to smaller, paler ones in the deserts of the southwest). Song sparrows are found in thickets, in brush, around marshes, along roadsides, and in gardens.

Song sparrows feed mainly on insects and seeds (the latter especially in winter, mainly grass and "weed" seeds). In coastal marshes and on islands, Song Sparrows also feed on small crustaceans and mollusks and perhaps, rarely, even small fish.

Males often defend only a small nesting territory, so high densities may be present in good habitat. In courtship, the male may chase the female and may perform a fluttering flight among the bushes with neck outstretched and head held high.

Nests are typically constructed on the ground under a clump of grass or shrub or less than 1 m above the ground (although they may sometimes be 3 m or higher). The nest, which is constructed mostly or entirely by the female, is an open cup of weeds, grass, leaves, and bark strips lined with fine grass, rootlets, and animal hair. The typical clutch size is 4 eggs, but 3 or 5 eggs are common (rarely 2 or 6). The eggs are pale greenish white and heavily spotted with reddish brown. Incubation (for around 12 to 14 days) is apparently by the female only, although both sexes feed the nestlings. Young typically leave the nest around 10 to 12 days after hatching, but remain with their parents for around 3 weeks more.

In many parts of their range, Song Sparrows are year-round residents, but birds from the northern interior winter in the southern United States or extreme northern Mexico.

(Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Dunn and Alderfer 2011)

  • American Ornithologists' Union. 1998. Check-list of North American Birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
  • Dunn, J.L. and J. Alderfer. 2011. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
  • Kaufman, K. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
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Distribution

Song sparrows, Melospiza melodia, occurs over most of North America, with highest density population in the midwestern Great Lakes region. This is one of the most common sparrows in North America and is highly variable geographically with 39 recognized subspecies in North America and Mexico (Pyle 1997).

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Passerines Part 1.. Bolinas, CA: Slate Creek Press.
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Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) BREEDING: southern Alaska and southern Mackenzie to northern Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, south to southern Baja California, southern Mexico, northern New Mexico, northern Arkansas, northeastern Alabama, and South Carolina. NON-BREEDING: southern Alaska, coastal and southern British Columbia, northern U.S., and southeastern Canada south through the breeding range and the southeastern U.S.

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Range Description

Melospiza melodia occurs throughout southern Canada and the U.S.A., and in parts of Mexico (del Hoyo et al. 2011). The subspecies graminea of California's Santa Barbara Island went extinct in the 1960s (Fuller 2000).
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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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National Distribution

Canada

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

United States

Origin: Native

Regularity: Regularly occurring

Currently: Present

Confidence: Confident

Type of Residency: Year-round

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Geographic Range

Song sparrows live throughout most of North America, with many living in the midwestern United States. Song sparrows are one of the most common sparrows. There are approximately 39 recognized subspecies living in North America and Mexico.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

  • Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Passerines Part 1.. Bolinas, CA: Slate Creek Press.
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Physical Description

Morphology

Song sparrows are mid-sized sparrows measuring between 12-17 cm. They are a monomorphic species. Song sparrows exhibit heavily streaked plumage. They are most easily recognized by dark streaks that form a central chest spot (stick pin). The head is brown with a whitish or grayish crown stripe and eye stripe. The tail is usually tinged with rusty, brown-red colored feathers, fairly long and rounded. The bill is dark brown.

Range length: 12.0 to 17.0 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

Average mass: 19.1 g.

Average basal metabolic rate: 0.25 W.

  • Fisher, C., J. Morlan. 1996. Birds of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Redmond, Washington: Lone Pine Press.
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Physical Description

Song sparrows are mid-sized sparrows measuring between 12-17 cm (5-7 in). They are a monomorphic species, which means that both sexes are similar in size and color. Song sparrows exhibit heavily streaked plumage. They are most easily recognized by dark streaks that form a central chest spot (stick pin). The head is brown with a whitish or grayish crown stripe and eye stripe. The tail is usually tinged with rusty, brown-red colored feathers, fairly long and rounded. The bill is dark brown.

Range length: 12.0 to 17.0 cm.

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike

Average mass: 19.1 g.

Average basal metabolic rate: 0.25 W.

  • Fisher, C., J. Morlan. 1996. Birds of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Redmond, Washington: Lone Pine Press.
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Size

Length: 16 cm

Weight: 21 grams

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Diagnostic Description

Differs from the fox sparrow in smaller size (fox sparrow length 17-19 cm) and less heavy markings. Differs from the savannah sparrow in lacking yellow over the eye and having a rounded rather than notched tail. Differs from Lincoln's sparrow in having a less contrastingly striped crown and a wider eye ring and by lacking a band of creamy buff across the upper breast.

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Ecology

Habitat

Song sparrows are referred to as partially migratory. Permanent and summer residents inhabit breeding grounds. Song sparrows are usually found in open brushy habitats, mostly along the borders of ponds or streams, abandoned pastures, thickets or woodland edge. In winter you can find them in marshes, tall weedy fields, moist ravines and brush piles. (Ryser 1985, Rising 1984)

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; chaparral ; forest ; scrub forest

Wetlands: marsh

Other Habitat Features: suburban ; agricultural ; riparian

  • Rising, J. 1984. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrow of the United States and Canada. San Diego, CA: The Academic Press.
  • Ryser, F. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
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Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
  • Marine
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Comments: Brushy, shrubby, and deep grassy areas along watercourses and seacoasts; marshes (cattail, bulrush, and salt); and, mostly in the northern and eastern portions of range, forest edge, bogs, brushy clearings, thickets, hedgerows, gardens, brushy past. BREEDING: Nests on ground, especially early in season, among clumps of dead grasses, weeds; later often 0.5-10 m up in small conifer, thorny bush, willows, cattails, cordgrass (Terres 1980).

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Song sparrows are usually found in open brushy habitats, mostly along the borders of ponds or streams, abandoned pastures, thickets, or woodland edge. In winter you can find them in marshes, tall weedy fields, moist ravines, and brush piles.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; chaparral ; forest ; scrub forest

Wetlands: marsh

Other Habitat Features: suburban ; agricultural ; riparian

  • Rising, J. 1984. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrow of the United States and Canada. San Diego, CA: The Academic Press.
  • Ryser, F. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Begins northward migration from southern wintering areas in late February, arrives in northernmost breeding areas March-May (Terres 1980).

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Trophic Strategy

The diet of song sparrows typically consists of seeds, grains, grass, berries and, on some occasions, insects. Although song sparrows are primarily herbivorous and granivorous, during yolk formation females may consume insects or other invertebrates to supplement her diet. Since the female needs extra, high-protein food to produce her eggs, she also eats sprouting shoots and leaves, flower buds, or even algae in the spring. This new growth is known to have a higher levels of protein than old growth. Song sparrows have been reported to eat crusteaceans and mollusks in coastal areas.

Animal Foods: insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Plant Foods: leaves; seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit; flowers; algae

Primary Diet: herbivore (Granivore )

  • Enrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc..
  • Phillips, J., P. Butler, P. Sharp. 1985. Physiological Strategies in Avian Biology. New York, NY: Chapman and Hall.
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Comments: Eats mostly insects and seeds, some small fruits; forages in trees, grasses, bushes, and on open ground (Terres 1980).

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Food Habits

The diet typically consists of seeds, grains, grass, berries, and, on some occasions, Insecta. Since females need extra, high-protein food to produce eggs they may consume insects or other invertebrates to supplement their diet. Son sparrows also eat sprouting shoots, leaves, flower buds, or algae in the spring. Song sparrows have also been reported to eat Malacostraca and Gastropoda in coastal areas.

Animal Foods: insects; terrestrial non-insect arthropods; mollusks; aquatic crustaceans

Plant Foods: leaves; seeds, grains, and nuts; fruit; flowers; algae

  • Enrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc..
  • Phillips, J., P. Butler, P. Sharp. 1985. Physiological Strategies in Avian Biology. New York, NY: Chapman and Hall.
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Associations

Song sparrows may help to disperse seeds.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

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Song sparrows are preyed upon by a number of small predators. As adults they are most likely to be preyed upon by birds of prey. As nestlings they may be eaten by snakes, raccoons, skunks, cats, weasels, and other small predators.

Song sparrows are alert and their brown, streaked coloration make them inconspicuous in the brushy habitats they occupy.

Known Predators:

  • birds of prey
  • snakes
  • raccoons
  • skunks
  • cats
  • weasels

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Ecosystem Roles

Song sparrows may help to disperse seeds.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

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Predation

Song sparrows are preyed upon by a number of small predators. As adults they are most likely to be preyed upon by Falconiformes. As nestlings they may be eaten by Serpentes, Procyon lotor, Mephitis mephitis, Felis silvestris, Mustela, and other small predators.

Song sparrows are alert and their brown, streaked coloration make them inconspicuous in the brushy habitats they occupy.

Known Predators:

  • Falconiformes
  • Serpentes
  • Procyon lotor
  • Mephitis mephitis
  • Felis silvestris
  • Mustela

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Known predators

Melospiza melodia is prey of:
Accipiter striatus
Accipiter cooperii

Based on studies in:
Canada: Manitoba (Forest)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • R. D. Bird, Biotic communities of the Aspen Parkland of central Canada, Ecology, 11:356-442, from p. 410 (1930).
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Known prey organisms

Melospiza melodia preys on:
Araneae
Disyonicha quinquevitata
Insecta
Collembola
non-insect arthropods

Based on studies in:
Canada: Manitoba (Forest)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • R. D. Bird, Biotic communities of the Aspen Parkland of central Canada, Ecology, 11:356-442, from p. 410 (1930).
  • R. D. Bird, Biotic communities of the Aspen Parkland of central Canada, Ecology, 11:356-442, from p. 393 (1930).
  • Myers, P., R. Espinosa, C. S. Parr, T. Jones, G. S. Hammond, and T. A. Dewey. 2006. The Animal Diversity Web (online). Accessed February 16, 2011 at http://animaldiversity.org. http://www.animaldiversity.org
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General Ecology

Breeding territory usually is less than 0.4 ha (Terres 1980).

On Mandarte Island, southwestern British Columbia, population fluctuations were caused by the effects of severe weather and nest parasitism by cowbirds on juvenile recruitment (Arcese et al., 1992, Ecology 73:805-822); further study indicated that colonization of the island by cowbirds apparently had little effect on the average number of song sparrows breeding there (Smith and Arcese, 1994, Condor 96:916-934).

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Song sparrows communicate primarily through body language and vocalizations. They have a range of song and call types that communicate different states and attitudes.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Communication and Perception

Song sparrows communicate primarily through body language and vocalizations. They have a range of song and call types that communicate different states and attitudes.

Communication Channels: visual ; acoustic

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Life Expectancy

Song sparrows in the wild have been known to live as long as 11 years and 4 months, though many song sparrows probably die within their first year of life.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
11.0 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
136 months.

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Lifespan/Longevity

Song sparrows in the wild have been known to live as long as 11 years and 4 months, though many song sparrows probably die within their first year of life.

Range lifespan

Status: wild:
11.0 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
136 months.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 11.3 years (wild)
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Reproduction

Song sparrows are known to be monogamous with occasional polygyny being observed. Males have not been reported to feed their mates. Males arrive ahead of females on the breeding grounds and begin to define their territory by puffing out their plumage, extending and fluttering their wings, and by singing from three or four main perches. Males announce their identity by territorial singing and aggressive behavior. Females announce their identity by either a high pitched note, or a nasal kind of chatter. Pair bonding occurs on the territory of the male. Females select mates, probably based on the quality of his territory. Males show readiness to mate by pouncing near their mate. They will also pounce near neighboring females while their mates are not close by. Females are more faithful to mates and reject advances of strange males while their mates come to their defense. Females will 'henpeck' their mates by opening her bill at him and giving him small pecks.

Mating System: monogamous ; polygynous

Typically all females and most males start breeding at age one. The breeding season begins in April and ends in August. Females build a nest in 5 to 10 days. The nest is made of dead grasses, weed stems, roots, and bark shreds formed into a cup with rough outer layer lined with finer grasses and sometimes hair. The nest is usually placed at the base of shrubs or clumps of grass. Females lay between 3 and 5 oval shaped, light blue or greenish-blue, spotted eggs.

Breeding interval: Song sparrows may breed once or twice during a breeding season.

Breeding season: Song sparrows breed from April through August.

Range eggs per season: 3.0 to 5.0.

Range time to hatching: 12 to 14.0 days.

Range time to independence: 18 to 20 days.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1.0 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1.0 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous

Average eggs per season: 4.

Females incubate the eggs for 12 to 14 days. The young are tended by both male and female for the first 5 to 6 days, although females are more commonly observed at the nest. The young open their eyes at 3 to 4 days, they can fly well at 17 days, and are independent at 18 to 20 days.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Baicich, P., C. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. San Diego, CA: Natural World Academic Press.
  • Ryser, F. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
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Clutch size 3-6. Two, sometimes 3, broods per year. Incubation usually 12-13 days, by female. Young tended by both parents, leave nest at about 10 days, can fly well at 17 days, independent in 18-20 days more. Sexually mature in 1 year.

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Song sparrows are known to be monogamous with occasional polygyny being observed. Males have not been reported to feed their mates. Males arrive ahead of females on the breeding grounds and begin to define their territory by puffing out their plumage, extending and fluttering their wings, and by singing from three or four main perches. Males announce their identity by territorial singing and aggressive behavior. Females announce their identity by either a high pitched note, or a nasal kind of chatter. Pair bonding occurs on the territory of the male. Females select mates, probably based on the quality of his territory. Males show readiness to mate by pouncing near their mate. They will also pounce near neighboring females while their mates are not close by. Females are more faithful to mates and reject advances of strange males while their mates come to their defense. Females will 'henpeck' their mates by opening her bill at him and giving him small pecks.

Mating System: monogamous ; polygynous

Typically all females and most males start breeding at age one. The breeding season begins in April and ends in August. Females build a nest in 5 to 10 days. The nest is made of dead grasses, weed stems, roots, and bark shreds formed into a cup with rough outer layer lined with finer grasses and sometimes hair. The nest is usually placed at the base of shrubs or clumps of grass. Females lay between 3 and 5 oval shaped, light blue or greenish-blue, spotted eggs.

Breeding interval: Song sparrows may breed once or twice during a breeding season.

Breeding season: Song sparrows breed from April through August.

Range eggs per season: 3.0 to 5.0.

Range time to hatching: 12 to 14.0 days.

Range time to independence: 18 to 20 days.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 1.0 years.

Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 1.0 years.

Key Reproductive Features: seasonal breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); fertilization

Average eggs per season: 4.

Females incubate the eggs for 12 to 14 days. The young are tended by both male and female for the first 5 to 6 days, although females are more commonly observed at the nest. The young open their eyes at 3 to 4 days, they can fly well at 17 days, and are independent at 18 to 20 days.

Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Male, Female, Protecting: Male, Female)

  • Baicich, P., C. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. San Diego, CA: Natural World Academic Press.
  • Ryser, F. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Melospiza melodia

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 29 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNCCAACCTGGAGCCCTCCTAGGAGACGATCAAGTATACAACGTGGTCGTCACAGCCCATGCTTTCGTAATGATTTTCTTCATAGTCATGCCAATTATAATCGGAGGGTTCGGAAACTGANTAGNCCCCCTTATAATTGGAGCCCCAGACATAGCNTTCCCACNAATAAATAACATAAGCTTCTGANTACTCCCCCCATNCTTCCNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGGCACAGGCTGAACAGTTTACCCCCCACTAGCTGGCAACCTAGCCCACGCCGGAGCCTCAGTCGACCTCGCAATCTTCTCCCTACACCTAGCCGGCATCTCCTCAATCTTAGGAGCAATCAACTTCATCACTACAGCAATTAACATAAAACCCCCCGCCCTCTCACAATATCAAACCCCCCTATTCGTATGATCCGTCCTCATCACCGCAGTTCTCCTACTCCTATCCCTCCCAGNTCTCGCCGCAGGTATCACAATACTTCTCACAGACCGCAACCGCAACACCACATTCTTCGACCCTGCTGGAGGGGGAGACCCAGTCCTATACCAACACCTCTTCTGATTCTTTGGACACCCAGAAGTCTATATCCTGATCCTC
-- end --

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Melospiza melodia

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 33
Specimens with Barcodes: 35
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

Song sparrows are abundant in appropriate habitats throughout their range. They are protected under the U. S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

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IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be stable, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.
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National NatureServe Conservation Status

Canada

Rounded National Status Rank: N5B,N5N : N5B: Secure - Breeding, N5N: Secure - Nonbreeding

United States

Rounded National Status Rank: N5 - Secure

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NatureServe Conservation Status

Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure

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Song sparrows are abundant in appropriate habitats throughout their range. They are protected under the U. S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern

US Migratory Bird Act: protected

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: no special status

State of Michigan List: no special status

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Population

Population Trend
Stable
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Threats

Comments: Subspecies GRAMINEA of Santa Barbara Island, California, is extinct, due to habitat destruction by introduced hares followed by an extensive fire (Ehrlich et al. 1992).

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

There are no negative impacts of song sparrows on humans.

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Song sparrows may disperse seeds and are important members of the ecosystems in which they live.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no negative impacts of song sparrows on humans.

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Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Song sparrows may disperse seeds and are important members of the ecosystems in which they live.

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Wikipedia

Song sparrow

The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a medium-sized American sparrow. Among the native sparrows in North America, it is easily one of the most abundant, variable and adaptable species.

Description[edit]

Adult song sparrows have brown upperparts with dark streaks on the back and are white underneath with dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the breast. They have a brown cap and a long brown rounded tail. Their face is gray with a streak through the eye. They are highly variable in size across numerous subspecies (for subspecies details, see below). The body length ranges from 11 to 18 cm (4.3 to 7.1 in) and wingspan can range from 18 to 25.4 cm (7.1 to 10.0 in).[2][3] Body mass ranges from 11.9 to 53 g (0.42 to 1.87 oz),.[4] The average of all races is 32 g (1.1 oz) but the widespread nominate subspecies (M. m. melodia) weighs only about 22 g (0.78 oz) on average. The maximum lifespan in the wild is 11.3 years.[5]

In the field, they are most easily confused with its congener the Lincoln's sparrow, and the Savannah sparrow. The former can be recognized by its shorter, grayer tail and the differently-patterned head, the brown cheeks forming a clear-cut angular patch. The Savannah sparrow has a forked tail and yellowish flecks on the face when seen up close.

Distribution and life history[edit]

Although they are a habitat generalist,[6] their favorite habitat is brushy areas and marshes, including salt marshes, across most of Canada and the United States. They also thrive in human areas, such as in suburbs, along edges in agricultural areas, and along roadsides. In southern locations, they are permanent residents. Northern birds migrate to the southern United States or Mexico, where there is also a local population resident all year round. The song sparrow is a very rare vagrant to western Europe, with a few recorded in Great Britain and Norway.

These birds forage on the ground, in shrubs or in very shallow water. They mainly eat insects and seeds. Birds in salt marshes may also eat small crustaceans. They nest either in a sheltered location on the ground or in trees or shrubs.

Eggs[edit]

The song sparrow lays three to five eggs which are a brown spotted greenish-white.

Song[edit]

Singing in Delaware USA

The sparrow species derives it name from its colorful repertoire of songs. Enthusiasts report that one of the songs heard often in suburban locations closely resembles the opening four notes of Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. The male uses a fairly complex song to declare ownership of its territory and attract females.

Singing itself consists of a combination of repeated notes, quickly passing isolated notes, and trills. The songs are very crisp, clear, and precise, making them easily distinguishable by human ears. A particular song is determined not only by pitch and rhythm but also by the timbre of the trills. Although one bird will know many songs—as many as 20 different tunes with as many as 1000 improvised variations on the basic theme,[citation needed]—unlike thrushes, the song sparrow usually repeats the same song many times before switching to a different song.

Song sparrows typically learn their songs from a handful of other birds that have neighboring territories. They are most likely to learn songs that are shared in common between these neighbors. Ultimately, they will choose a territory close to or replacing the birds that they have learned from. This allows the song sparrows to address their neighbors with songs shared in common with those neighbors. It has been demonstrated that song sparrows are able to distinguish neighbors from strangers on the basis of song, and also that females are able to distinguish (and prefer) their mate's songs from those of other neighboring birds, and they prefer songs of neighboring birds to those of strangers.

Predators and parasites[edit]

Common predators of the song sparrow include cats, hawks, and owls. snakes, dogs, and the American kestrel are treated ambiguously, suggesting that they are less of a threat. The song sparrow recognizes enemies by both instinctual and learned patterns (including cultural learning), and adjusts its future behavior based on both its own experiences in encounters, and from watching other birds interact with the enemies. Comparisons of experiments on hand-raised birds to observation of birds in the wild suggest that the fear of owls and hawks is instinctual, but fear of cats is learned.[7]

Song sparrows' nests are parasitized by the brown-headed cowbird. The cowbirds' eggs closely resemble song sparrows' eggs, although the cowbirds' eggs are slightly larger. Song sparrows recognize cowbirds as a threat and attack the cowbirds when they are near the nest. There is some evidence that this behavior is learned rather than instinctual.[7] A more recent study found that the behavior of attacking female cowbirds near nests may actually attract cowbird parasitism because the female cowbirds use such behavior to identify female song sparrows that are more likely to successfully raise a cowbird chick.[8] One study found that while cowbird parasitism did result in more nest failure, overall there were negligible effects on song sparrow populations when cowbirds were introduced to an island. The study pointed to a number of explanatory factors including song sparrows raising multiple broods, and song sparrows' abilities to raise cowbird chicks with their own.[9]

Subspecies[edit]

The song sparrow is one of the birds with the most numerous subspecies in North America, and even on a global scale rivals such species as the horned lark, the yellow wagtail, the golden whistler or the island thrush; 52 subspecies were named altogether, of which 24 are now considered valid.[10][11] It is a cryptic species.

Eastern group[edit]

Small, brownish, long-winged forms with strong black streaks.

  • Melospiza melodia melodia (Wilson, 1810). The nominate subspecies. Eastern half of North American range except coastal areas south from New York State. In winter, they migrate southeastwards. Very contrasting, very light with black streaks below, and gray margins to back feathers. This population includes the forms named as M. m. juddi Bishop, 1896; M. m. acadica Thayer and Bangs, 1914; M. m. beata (non Bangs) Todd, 1930; M. m. euphonia Wetmore, 1936; M. m. callima Oberholser, 1974; and M. m. melanchra Oberholser, 1974.
  • Melospiza melodia atlantica Todd, 1924. Inhabits the Atlantic Coast salt marshes from New York State southwards; does not migrate. Differs from nominate by a gray back. Includes M. m. rossignolii Bailey, 1936.
  • Melospiza melodia montana Henshaw, 1884. The subspecies west of melodia to the Rocky Mountains. Some birds from the northern part of its range migrate to north-west Mexico in winter. Similar to nominate, but larger, duller coloration and more slender bill. Includes M. m. fisherella Oberholser, 1911.

Northwestern group[edit]

Large, dark, diffuse dark streaks. A study of mtDNA allozyme variation of most forms in this group concluded that they are of comparatively recent origin and that island populations are apparently derived independently from each other.[12]

Taken near Anacortes, Washington in March, this individual is most likely M. m. morphna
Taken at Springfield, Oregon in early April, this photo probably shows M. m. cleonensis or a "phaea" hybrid
  • Melospiza melodia maxima Gabrielson & Lincoln, 1951, giant song sparrow. W Aleutian Islands (Attu to Atka Island), resident. The largest subspecies, about the size of the California Towhee. Very gray overall, long, diffuse streaks. Bill long and slender.
  • Melospiza melodia sanaka McGregor, 1901, Aleutian song sparrow. Aleutians from Seguam Island east to Stepovak Bay, Alaska, and islands to the south of Alaskan Peninsula; resident. Similar to maxima; grayer still and bill even more slender. Includes the Semidi song sparrow, M. m. semidiensis Brooks, 1919, which may be a distinct subspecies however.[13] Also includes the population from Amak Island[14] named M. m. amaka Gabrielson & Lincoln, 1951 (Amak song sparrow) which was extirpated due to habitat destruction, apparently disappearing in the weeks around New Year's Eve, 1980/1981 (there were unconfirmed sightings in 1987 and 1988).
  • Melospiza melodia insignis Baird, 1869, Bischoff song sparrow. Kodiak, Afognak, Sitkalidak, and Raspberry Islands, and Kukak and Katmai on Alaska Peninsula; many migrate south in winter. A darkish gray, medium-sized form.
  • Melospiza melodia kenaiensis Ridgway, 1900, Kenai song sparrow. Resident; Pacific coast of Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound islands; some resident, some migrant. Smaller and browner than insignis.
  • Melospiza melodia caurina Ridgway, 1899, Yakutat song sparrow. Northern Gulf of Alaska coast, many migrate to Pacific Northwest in winter. A smaller version of kenaiensis.
  • Melospiza melodia rufina (Bonaparte, 1850), sooty song sparrow. Outer islands of Alexander Archipelago and Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands); most are resident. A very dark, rufous, and small form. Includes M. m. kwaisa Cumming, 1933.
  • Melospiza melodia morphna Oberholser, 1899. Coastal region of central British Columbia south to NW Oregon; resident. Lighter, more rufous than rufina. Previously M. m. cinerea (non Gmelin) (Audubon, 1839); M. m. phaea Fisher, 1902 are Central Oregon hybrids between this subspecies and M. m. cleonensis.
  • Melospiza melodia merrilli Brewster, 1896. Occurs between the ranges of morphna and montana south to N Nevada; some migrate south in winter. Includes M. m. ingersolli McGregor, 1899 and M. m. inexspectata Riley, 1911 (Riley song sparrow; inexpectata is a common lapsus). Doubtfully distinct; intermediate between morphna and montana in appearance also and may be hybrid birds.
  • Melospiza melodia cleonensis McGregor, 1899. SW Oregon west of Cascade Mountains south to NW California. Brownish-buffish, notably on the flanks; no gray on back; underside with somewhat diffuse chestnut streaks.

Cismontane California group[edit]

Small, well-marked and short-winged brownish forms. All resident, except occasional birds from upland populations.

  • Melospiza melodia gouldii Baird, 1858. Coastal central California, except San Francisco Bay. A very brown and clear-marked subspecies; buffish (not light gray) fringes of upper back. M. m. santaecrucis Grinnell, 1901 are hybrids with birds from southwards and Central Valley populations.
  • Melospiza melodia samuelis (Baird, 1858), San Pablo song sparrow. N San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay saltmarshes. A small, tiny-billed subspecies with dirty olive upperpart background.
  • Melospiza melodia maxillaris Grinnell, 1909, Suisun song sparrow. Suisun Bay marshes. Dark upperparts; brown with gray mantle edges; plump bill base.
  • Melospiza melodia pusillula Ridgway, 1899, Alameda song sparrow. E San Francisco Bay saltmarshes. Yellowest subspecies, paler than samuelis and clear yellow hue below.
  • Melospiza melodia heermanni Baird, 1858. Central coastal California and Central Valley south to N Baja California. Similar in color to maxillaris but medium-sized mainland subspecies. Some N-S variation with birds becoming blacker on backs, local populations once separated as M. m. cooperi Ridgway, 1899 and M. m. mailliardi Grinnell, 1911. The latter, occurring around Modesto, may be distinct.
  • Melospiza melodia graminea Townsend, 1890. Described from Santa Barbara Island, California Channel Islands. A smaller, pale-gray version of heermanni. Originally called Santa Barbara song sparrow; birds from the Coronado Islands were described as M. m. coronatorum Grinnell and Daggett, 1903, those from San Miguel Island as M. m. micronyx Grinnell, 1928 and those from San Clemente, Santa Rosa and Anacapa Islands as M. m. clementae Townsend, 1890. Hybrid population with heermanni on Santa Cruz Island. Extirpated on Santa Barbara (and possibly San Clemente) by feral cats, c. 1967–1970.

Southwestern group[edit]

Small, pale, streaks rufous; all resident.

  • Melospiza melodia fallax (Baird, 1854), desert song sparrow. Sonoran and parts of Mojave Deserts to E Arizona. A pale ruddy desert form. Synonyms are M. m. saltonis Grinnell, 1909, M. m. virginis Marshall and Behle, 1942 and M. m. bendirei Phillips, 1943.
  • Melospiza melodia rivularis Bryant, 1888. Central Baja California. Similar to fallax, lightly streaked breast and long slender bill.
  • Melospiza melodia goldmani Nelson, 1899. Not yet found outside El Salto area, Sierra Madre Oriental. Dark reddish brown back with brownish streaks just as in morphna.

Mexican Plateau group[edit]

Black-spotted, white throats; all resident.

  • Melospiza melodia adusta Nelson, 1899. Río Lerma drainage from Zacapú to Lago Yuriria. Bold black pattern on belly and back, clear white throat. Birds become less ruddy brown going east.
  • Melospiza melodia villai Phillips and Dickerman, 1957. Headwaters of Río Lerma near Toluca. Darker and duller brown than adusta, distinctly large.
  • Melospiza melodia mexicana Ridgway, 1874. Hidalgo to Puebla. Duller and paler than adusta, birds becoming grayish going south. Includes M. m. azteca Dickerman, 1963 and M. m. niceae Dickerman, 1963. "M. m. pectoralis" (ex von Müller, 1865) cannot be assigned to a known song sparrow population.

Conservation status[edit]

Seen as a whole, the song sparrow is widespread and common enough to be classified as Species of Least Concern by the IUCN. The taxa mailliardi, maxillaris, samuelis (all Category 3), pusillula (Category 2), and graminea (Category 1) are listed as Species of Special Concern in California.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ BirdLife International (2012). "Melospiza melodia". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013. 
  2. ^ eNature: Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
  3. ^ The Cornell lab of ornithology: Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
  4. ^ CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses by John B. Dunning Jr. (Editor). CRC Press (1992), ISBN 978-0849342585.
  5. ^ Wasser, D. E.; Sherman, P. W. (2010). "Avian longevities and their interpretation under evolutionary theories of senescence". Journal of Zoology 280 (2): 103. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2009.00671.x.  edit
  6. ^ Greenberg, R (1990). "Feeding neophobia and ecological plasticity: A test of the hypothesis with captive sparrows". Animal Behaviour 39 (2): 375–379. doi:10.1016/S0003-3472(05)80884-X. 
  7. ^ a b Nice, Margaret M. and Ter Pelkwyk, Joost (1941). "Enemy Recognition by the Song Sparrow". The Auk 58 (2): 195–214. doi:10.2307/4079104. JSTOR 4079104. 
  8. ^ Smith, James N. M.; Arcese, Peter; McLean, Ian G. (1984). "Age, experience, and enemy recognition by wild song sparrows". Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 14 (2): 101. doi:10.1007/BF00291901. 
  9. ^ Smith, James N. M. and Arcese, Peter (1994). "Brown-Headed Cowbirds and an Island Population of Song Sparrows: A 16-Year Study". The Condor 96 (4): 916–934. doi:10.2307/1369102. JSTOR 1369102. 
  10. ^ Patten, M.A. (2001): The roles of habitat and signalling in speciation: evidence from a contact zone of two Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) subspecies. Ph.D. diss., Univ. of California, Riverside.
  11. ^ Arcese, P.; Sogge, M.K.; Marr, A.B. & Patten, M.A. (2002): Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). In: Poole, A. & Gill, F.: The Birds of North America 704. The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.
  12. ^ Hare, M.P. & Shields, G.F. (1992 (1992). "Mitochondrial-DNA variation in the polytypic Alaskan song sparrow". Auk 109 (1): 126–132. doi:10.2307/4088273. 
  13. ^ Gabrielson, Ira N. & Lincoln, Frederick C. (1951 (1951). "The Races of Song Sparrows in Alaska". Condor 53 (5): 250–255. doi:10.2307/1364957. 
  14. ^ Pruett, Christin; Gibson, Daniel D. & Winker, Kevin (2003 (2004). "Amak Island Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia amaka) are not evolutionarily significant". Ornithological Science 3 (2): 133–138. doi:10.2326/osj.3.133. 
  15. ^ California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) (2006): California Bird Species of Special Concern.

Further reading[edit]

  • Beecher, M.D.; Campbell, S.E. & Stoddard, P.K. (1994): Correlation of Song Learning and Territory Establishment Strategies in the Song Sparrow. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 91(4): 1450–1454. PDF fulltext
  • Stoddard, Beecher, M.D.; Horning, C.L. & Campbell, S.E. (1991): Recognition of individual neighbors by song in the song sparrow, a species with song repertoires. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 29(3): 211–215.
  • O'Loghlen, A.L. & Beecher; M.D. (1997): Sexual preferences for mate song types in female song sparrows. Animal Behavior 53(4): 835–841. PDF fulltext
  • Smith, J.N.M.et al. (1997): A metapopulation approach to the population biology of the Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia. Ibis 138:4, 120–128.
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Names and Taxonomy

Taxonomy

Comments: Exhibits a well-structured continental pattern of morphological variation, but mtDNA variation is not geographically structured and subspecies are not identifiable by mtDNA analysis (Zink and Dittman 1993, Ball and Avise 1992). MtDNA data indicate that there may be barriers to gene flow between island and mainland populations in Alaska that are more severe than barriers of some populations in the contiguous U.S., but not effective enough, or ancient enough, to have produced deep branches in the intraspecific mtDNA phylogeny; genetic distance is small, even among subspecies with very divergent phenotypes; phenotypic differences used to define subspecies may have evolved fairly rapidly or they may be environmentally induced (Hare and Shields 1992).

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