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Savannah Sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Not all streaky brown birds are impossible to identify: Take a closer look at this one and you’ll see an understated but distinctive sparrow with a short tail, small head, and telltale yellow spot before the eye. Savannah Sparrows are one of the most numerous songbirds in North America, and while sometimes overlooked, are likely visitors across the continent. In summer, they don’t hesitate to advertise their location, belting out a loud, insect-like song from farm fields and grasslands.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.3–5.9 in
11–15 cm
Wingspan
7.9–8.7 in
20–22 cm
Weight
0.5–1 oz
15–28 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Song Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Bruant des prés (French)
  • Gorrión zanjero, Sabanero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Savannah Sparrow’s name sounds like a nod to its fondness for grassy areas, but this species was actually named by famed nineteenth century ornithologist Alexander Wilson for a specimen collected in Savannah, Georgia.
  • Raising young is hard work: a female Savannah Sparrow must gather 10 times her weight in food to feed herself and her young during the 8 days they are in the nest.
  • The "Ipswich Savannah Sparrow," a subspecies that breeds on Sable Island, Nova Scotia, is nearly 50 percent heavier than most other Savannah Sparrow subspecies. It is the palest race, and is found in winter in sand dunes along the Atlantic Coast. It was formerly considered a separate species.
  • In many parts of the species' range, especially in coastal areas and islands, Savannah Sparrows tend very strongly to return each year to the area where they hatched. This tendency, called natal philopatry, is the driving force for differentiation of numerous Savannah Sparrow subspecies.
  • The oldest known wild Savannah Sparrow was at least 6 years, 10 months old.

Habitat


Grassland

On both their summer and winter ranges, Savannah Sparrows live in grasslands with few trees, including meadows, pastures, grassy roadsides, sedge wetlands, and cultivated fields planted with cover crops like alfalfa. Near oceans, they also inhabit tidal saltmarshes and estuaries. In Alaska and northern Canada, they live among the shrubby willows of the tundra.

Food


Insects

During the breeding season, Savannah Sparrows eat nutritionally rich insects and spiders. They stalk through grassy areas or along beaches in search of beetles, grasshoppers, and other bugs, as well as spiders, millipedes, and pillbugs, snapping them up in their bill and swallowing them whole. When white frothy spittle masses appear on goldenrod plants, Savannah Sparrows hop up on the plant and devour the spittlebug nymphs inside the foam. On their winter range, Savannah Sparrows switch to a diet of mostly small seeds from grasses and forbs. Along coastal areas, they may eat tiny crustaceans.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-4 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.9 in
1.5–2.2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
8–13 days
Egg Description
Pale greenish, bluish, tan, or white, with speckles and streaks. Colors vary greatly, sometimes even within clutches.
Condition at Hatching
Naked with yellow-orange skin; the eyes open in four or five days.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest in one to three days. The nest is about 3 inches across and composed of two parts: an exterior of coarse grasses and in the middle, a finely woven tiny cup of thin grass. This inner cup is about 2 inches across and 1 inch deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

Savannah Sparrows hide their nests amid a thick thatch of the prior season’s dead grasses in densely vegetated areas. The nest is usually on the ground or low in grasses, goldenrod, saltmarsh vegetation, or low shrubs such as blueberry, blackberry, rose, and bayberry. The female selects the nest site, often choosing a spot on the edge of her mate’s territory, thus forcing him to defend new areas and causing conflict with a neighboring male.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Like many grassland sparrows, Savannah Sparrows walk along the ground to forage for bugs, occasionally running or hopping to seize prey. Flights are typically quick and low among grasses. At the outset of the breeding season, males perch on the outer limbs of shrubs and trees or atop fence posts to sing and declare their territory. They also use these vantages to keep watch over their area. If another Savannah Sparrow enters a male’s territory, he may use a “flutter flight” display to scare him away—fluttering up with his tail cocked and legs dangling, beating his wings slowly to hover in the air. Males also raise their wings vertically behind their backs in a territorial display, as well as chase intruders off their territory. Males engage in a similar type of flutter-flight display above females during courtship. In the middle and southern parts of their range, many Savannah Sparrow males breed with more than one female, though in the north of their range Savannah Sparrows tend to be monogamous (perhaps because the male’s help is needed at the nest for raising young quickly in a short northern summer). Leading up to winter migration, Savannah Sparrows gather in large flocks and become increasingly restless until one night, they depart.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Savannah Sparrows are widespread and abundant but their populations declined by about 1 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of about 36 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 180 million with 59 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 38 percent in Mexico, and 58 percent breeding in Canada. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Savannah Sparrows likely benefited greatly from human changes to landscapes early in the twentieth century that cleared forests and opened up pasturelands, but then they may have lost ground to the urbanization that followed—and to shifting agricultural practices that favor intensive row-cropping for corn and soybeans instead of dairy farms and hayfields. These sparrows are susceptible to some crop pesticides and, owing to their foraging style, may eat granular pesticides scattered in cornfields. Savannah Sparrow nesting can be disrupted when grassy areas are mowed or fields are hayed before young have fledged. Overgrazing by expanding populations of Snow Geese in northern Manitoba may be reducing suitable habitat for Savannah Sparrows there.

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Range Map Help

Savannah Sparrow Range Map
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Migration

Medium-distance migrant, with some resident populations along the coast of California and in Mexico. Their arrival on spring breeding grounds ranges from late February in Kentucky to early May in Alaska. They depart for their winter range between mid-September and early November. During spring migration, males arrive about a week prior to females.

Backyard Tips

Savannah Sparrows are not feeder birds, though they may come to backyards that adjoin fields. But if you keep a brush pile on your property, you might see them swoop in and take cover during migration or over the winter.

Find This Bird

Savannah Sparrows are inconspicuous birds with high, thin voices—but they’re common and widespread. Look for them in grassy areas within their range, the thicker the better. Males are conspicuous during breeding season, singing from perches like a fencepost or a lone shrub or tree on a grassland.