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Sagebrush Sparrow

Artemisiospiza nevadensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Sagebrush Sparrow is an elegant sparrow intimately tied to the great open spaces of the intermountain West. They live among sagebrush and other shrubs, where they forage mostly on the ground for insects and seeds. In early summer, males sing an abrupt, lively song from the shrub tops, where their soft gray upperparts complement the muted, gray-green sage. These sparrows depend on intact, relatively undisturbed tracts of sage for their breeding success; they winter in desert scrub and grasslands in the Southwest and Mexico.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Sagebrush Sparrows are small songbirds—medium-sized for sparrows—with a relatively long tail. The head is rounded and the bill is fairly short and thick.

  • Color Pattern

    Sagebrush Sparrows are brown above with a soft gray head with white underparts and a dark spot in the middle of the breast. The face shows a white eyering, a white spot before the eye, and a dark stripe bordering the throat. The tail is dark, with light edges to the outer feathers. Juveniles are more uniformly brown, lack the gray head, and are streaky beneath.

  • Behavior

    They are fairly inconspicuous birds that spend much of their time on the ground or concealed in shrubs, except during early summer when males sing from prominent perches. When crossing open areas they tend to run along the ground with the tail held high.

  • Habitat

    Sagebrush Sparrows breed in open areas of the rolling, sage-dominated shrubsteppe of western North America. During migration and in winter, Sagebrush Sparrows mix with other sparrow species in open, dry habitats including creosote and saltbush-dominated desert scrub.

Range Map Help

Sagebrush Sparrow Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

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    Sagebrush Sparrow

     
    • Medium-sized sparrow
    • Pale gray head contrasts with buffy/tan body and wings
    • Thin, white eye-ring
    • Plain white breast with dark streaks on sides of throat
    • © Tim Lenz, Lake Powell, Utah, January 2013

Similar Species

Similar Species

The very similar Bell’s Sparrow breeds in coastal California and the Mojave desert, but overlaps on its wintering grounds with Sagebrush Sparrow. Bell’s Sparrows from coastal California are somewhat darker, with darker stripes bordering the throat, than Sagebrush Sparrows—but Bell’s Sparrows from the Mojave are paler and more like Sagebrush Sparrows. Overall, the two species are extremely difficult to tell apart, and many times the best a birder can do on the wintering grounds is mark these birds as Bell’s/Sagebrush. Black-throated Sparrow breeds in more desert habitats of the Southwest than Sagebrush Sparrow does. The Black-throated Sparrow has a bold black bib, crown, and cheek, and a white stripes over the eye and white malar or “mustache” stripe. Vesper Sparrows are browner than Sagebrush Sparrows, with streaking on the breast and without the contrasting gray head. They also show more white in the outer tail in flight.

Regional Differences

The Sagebrush Sparrow was formerly considered one of five subspecies of the “Sage Sparrow." In 2013, Sage Sparrow was divided into two different species: one subspecies became the Sagebrush Sparrow, and the other four were classified as subspecies of Bell’s Sparrow. Bell's Sparrow has more subspecies and greater geographic variation because of their adaptability to a greater variety of habitat types and mountain ranges in and around California. The Sagebrush Sparrow, with somewhat paler plumage and longer wings (attributed to longer migrations), is fairly uniform across its broader range in the intermountain West of North America.

Find This Bird

As with many inconspicuous sparrows, the best way to find Sagebrush Sparrows is to look for them in the early morning during the breeding season, when males perch out in the open on tall shrubs and sing for your attention. At other times they may be considerably harder to find. Just be aware that in the right habitat—undisturbed sagebrush—these sparrows are fairly numerous, and they tend to forage on the ground and scurry rather than fly between patches of shrub cover. Patient watching and listening either for the sounds of foraging or for this bird’s bell-like tink call will help you find them.