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Overview

Brief Summary

Buntings are small warblers, closely resembling the finch. Their beak is totally adapted to eating seeds. They prefer to live on the ground and avoid inhabited areas. There are few birds that brood as far north as the bunting. You find them as far as Siberia during nesting season.
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Comprehensive Description

The family Emberizidae (sparrows, buntings and relatives) falls within the order Passeriformes (perching birds). Members of the Emberizidae family are commonly referred to as American or New World sparrows and buntings. The common name "sparrow" is actually a misnomer and is based on a superficial resemblance the members of Emberizidae have to the family Passeridae (Old World sparrows). Old World sparrows have similar size, shape and colors as New World sparrows and were mistakenly called sparrows by people arriving in the New World. New World sparrows are not actually closely related to Old World sparrows despite their name.

The classification of the family Emberizidae has been the subject of much debate (see Systematic and Taxonomic History). For this account I will use the classification found in Howard and Moore’s third edition of the Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World. Howard and Moore (2003) list 73 genera and 308 species of sparrows and buntings. The greatest diversity of Emberizids occurs in the New World where they are thought to have evolved.

On average, Emberizids are nondescript, small to medium sized, brownish birds. Many birdwatchers jokingly call them “little brown jobs”. They have a world-wide distribution and are found in a variety of different habitat types. Males and females are usually monogamous and are quite similar in appearance. Most Emberizids eat seeds and insects.

  • Dickinson, E. 2003. The Howard and Moore Complete Checklist of Birds of the World, 3rd edition. London: Christopher Helm.
  • Dunning, J. 2001. New World Sparrows. Pp. 516-535 in C Elphick, J Dunning, D Sibley, eds. The Sibly Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Rising, J., D. Beadle. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. San Diego: Academic Press.
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Distribution

Emberizids are found on all continents except Australia and Antarctica. However, the highest diversity of sparrows and buntings is found it the Western Hemisphere.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native ); palearctic (Native ); oriental (Native ); ethiopian (Native ); neotropical (Native ); oceanic islands (Introduced )

Other Geographic Terms: holarctic

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Physical Description

Morphology

Emberizids are small to medium sized birds 10 to 24 cm in length (15 cm on average). Towhees are the largest members of the family. Males are usually larger than females. Males and females are generally similar in appearance, however, where dimorphism occurs, males are brighter than females. Longspurs, buntings, towhees and seedeaters are the groups within Emberizidae that most often show sexual dimorphism.

Emberizids have conical bills. Most members of Emberizidae are brown or gray with streaks on their breast and/or back. However, there are some exceptions; for example, snow buntings (Plectrophenax nivalis) are primarily white. Juveniles usually have streaky coloration, especially on their breast. Adults molt in the late summer/early fall and in the spring. The molt does not usually change the bird’s appearance.

Sexual Dimorphism: sexes alike; male larger; sexes colored or patterned differently; male more colorful

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; bilateral symmetry

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Ecology

Habitat

Emberizids feed and nest in a wide variety of terrestrial habitats, in temperate, tropical and polar regions. They generally prefer open country and can be found in habitat from salt marshes at sea level to areas of alpine tundra at high elevation. They live in grasslands, deserts, desert scrublands, wetland and woodland edges, shrubby habitat, arctic and alpine tundra, agricultural fields, urban and suburban areas. Sparrows and buntings are almost never found in mature forest interiors; Bachman’s sparrows (Aimophila aestivalis) are the only sparrows that live in old growth forest. However, the longleaf pine forests that they inhabit are very open and are more like edge habitat than dense forest.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; polar ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: tundra ; desert or dune ; savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest ; mountains

Aquatic Biomes: coastal

Wetlands: marsh

Other Habitat Features: urban ; suburban ; agricultural

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Trophic Strategy

Emberizids are typically omnivorous (both insectivorous and grainivorous). They primarily eat seeds during the winter and insects during the summer. Their choice of prey usually consists of whatever insects are most common and easiest to catch. Some species, such as song sparrows (Melospiza melodia), that live in coastal areas, feed on mollusks and crustaceans.

Many species will specialize on certain types of seeds; small beaked sparrows eat small seeds, large beaked sparrows eat large seeds. Bill size and shape are adaptations that reflect the birds' food type. Emberizids forage by scratching at the ground looking for insects and seeds, pulling them off of vegetation, picking them off the ground, or gleaning insects from vegetation. Some species can get most of the water they need from insects and seeds and do not need additional water.

Primary Diet: carnivore (Insectivore ); herbivore (Granivore ); omnivore

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Associations

Emberizids are important members of their ecosystem. Because of their food habits, they likely have a regulatory influence on insect populations, and they are an important food source for their predators. They also have an influence on the reproduction of the plants whose seeds they eat. In addition, Emberizids are hosts for brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater), a parasitic species of bird that lays its eggs in the nests of other bird species.

Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds

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Known predators include hawks (family Accipitridae), falcons (family Falconidae), owls (family Strigidae) and numerous mammals (class Mammalia, including house cats (Felis silvestris), raccoons (Procyon lotor), foxes (family Canidae) and weasels (family Mustelidae)). Sparrows and buntings often forage near cover so they can flee if a predator approaches. They also forage in flocks, a behavior that allows for increased vigilance and reduces the chance that any one bird will be caught. As with almost all ground nesting birds, nest predation is common among Emberizids.

Known Predators:

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In Great Britain and/or Ireland:
Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya chloropus ectoparasitises Emberizidae

Animal / parasite / ectoparasite
imago of Ornithomya fringillina ectoparasitises Emberizidae
Other: major host/prey

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Female Emberizids rarely sing. Males sing to attract females and to defend territories against other males. Some species have simple songs (chip notes linked together) and others have more complex or melodic songs. Males often sing from prominent perches within their territories, some also sing while in flight. Male and female pairs often have a call that they use to communicate with each other and with their offspring. Emberizids also give alarm calls when threatened.

Communication Channels: acoustic

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Life Expectancy

The oldest recorded sparrow was 13 years and 4 months old. Adult annual survival is usually around 60 percent. Like most small birds, Emberizids probably live on average only two to five years.

  • Gill, F. 1995. Ornithology, Second Edition. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
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Reproduction

Most Emberizids are monogamous. However, a few are polygynous. Even among the socially monogamous species, extra-pair copulation (when birds mate with individuals other than their mate) is common. Smith’s longspurs (Calcarius pictus) are polygynandrous (promiscuous, males and females have multiple mates). Saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrows (Ammodramus caudacutus) exhibit what is called scramble competition polygyny. In this mating system, which is common in frogs, males are not territorial and more than one male will try to mate with a single female at once. In most species, males defend breeding territories using song and by chasing intruders.

Mating System: monogamous ; polyandrous ; polygynous ; polygynandrous (promiscuous)

Breeding in Emberizids usually takes place during the summer or rainy seasons. Breeding usually occurs during the season with the maximum abundance of invertebrates, the favored food source for parents to feed their young. Many species have more than one brood per year and will re-nest if their initial nest is lost due to depredation. Nests are built between 0 and 6 meters above the ground, however, usually on the ground or in shrubs within one meter of the ground. Sparrows and buntings usually build open cup nests (a few species build domed nests) made of grass and stems, lined with fine roots, grass and hair. Nests are not re-used year after year and take from 2 to 12 days to build (usually 3 to 4).

Females lay 3 to 5 eggs on average. Eggs are white, bluish or tan with very few spots to a lot of spotting. They measure between 17 by 13 mm to 25 by 19 mm. Females incubate the eggs and may be fed occasionally by their mates during this period. Incubation lasts 11 to 14 days and the eggs hatch synchronously. Young are fed primarily insects by both parents and usually fledge between 9 to 12 days after hatching. If the nest is disturbed, chicks will fledge earlier. Young reach sexual maturity in one year.

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

Females incubate the eggs and may be fed occasionally by their mates during this period. Incubation lasts 11 to 14 days and the eggs hatch synchronously. Young are altricial and are fed primarily insects by both parents. Chicks usually fledge between 9 to 12 days after hatching. If the nest is disturbed, chicks will fledge earlier. Young receive parental care for 21 to 35 days after hatching. Males often take a greater part in raising fledglings than females so that females can begin a second brood.

Parental Investment: altricial ; male parental care ; female parental care

  • Byers, C., J. Curson, U. Olsson. 1995. Sparrows and Buntings, A Guide to the Sparrows and Buntings of North America and the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  • Dunning, J. 2001. New World Sparrows. Pp. 516-535 in C Elphick, J Dunning, D Sibley, eds. The Sibly Guide to Bird Life and Behavior. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
  • Rising, J., D. Beadle. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. San Diego: Academic Press.
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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Statistics of barcoding coverage

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLD) Stats
Specimen Records:2860
Specimens with Sequences:2112
Specimens with Barcodes:2062
Species:253
Species With Barcodes:227
Public Records:1197
Public Species:167
Public BINs:155
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Barcode data

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Conservation

Conservation Status

Many populations of Emberizids are declining. Habitat loss and fragmentation are main threats. Habitat is being lost due to urbanization, and as forest succession reduces the size and number of grasslands and old fields. Over-grazing, cowbird parasitism, trapping for the cage-bird trade and house cats also pose threats to many species.

The IUCN lists a number of species as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable. CITES also lists a few Emberizids under appendix II and III. Most migratory species in the United States are protected by the US Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the US ESA lists two subspecies as endangered (Cape Sable seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus mirabilis) and Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus)) and one as threatened (San Clement sage sparrow (Amphizpiza belli clementeae)).

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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

Because they are seed eaters, sparrows and buntings can often be crop pests. They feed on lettuce, broccoli, sugar beats, alfalfa, grains, fruit trees, flower seedlings and grass seed, among other things. They have a negative economic impact since farmers and others spend a lot of time and energy trying to keep the birds out.

Negative Impacts: crop pest

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Sparrows and buntings are common visitors to bird feeders and many species are sought out by avid birdwatchers. Also, as insectivores they eat insects that might be crop pests (for example, crickets (order Orthoptera), beetles (order Coleoptera), caterpillars (order Lepidoptera) and ants (order Hymenoptera)). Some Emberizids are also kept as pets.

Positive Impacts: pet trade ; ecotourism ; controls pest population

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