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Bell's Sparrow

Artemisiospiza belli ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Bell’s Sparrow is a neat, gray-headed sparrow emblematic of California’s coastal sage and chaparral. They also occur in Baja California, the Mojave Desert, and on San Clemente Island, California (a federally threatened subspecies). Like the very similar Sagebrush Sparrow, these birds spend much of their time foraging for insects and seeds on the ground underneath shrubs. In spring males sing a fast mix of trills and chips from the tallest perches they can find.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.9 in
12–15 cm
Weight
0.5–0.8 oz
15–22 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Chipping Sparrow; slightly smaller than a Golden-crowned Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Bruant de Bell (French)
  • Zacatonero de artemisa (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Taxonomy can be confusing, even for the experts. In the nineteenth century all the “sage” sparrows from the Rocky Mountains west to the Pacific Coast were known as Bell’s Sparrow, although ornithologists noted there were several regional forms. By 1910 they had split Bell’s Sparrow into the two distinct species we know today, but a revision in 1957 lumped them together as the Sage Sparrow. In 2013 they were split back into two species, now known as the Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow.
  • The oldest known Bell’s Sparrow was at least 9 years, 3 months old when it was recaptured and re-released at a California banding station.

Habitat


Scrub

Bell’s Sparrows breed in coastal sagebrush, chaparral, and other open, scrubby habitats. In chaparral, they tend toward younger, less dense stands that are growing back from recent fires; they are less common in older, taller stands that have remained unburned. In mountains of Southern California they also occur in big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). In the Mojave, Bell’s Sparrows use low scrub including big sagebrush, saltbush, bitterbrush, shadscale, and creosote bush. During migration and winter, Bell’s Sparrows often form loose flocks with other sparrow species, including Sagebrush Sparrows. They use dry shrublands or grasslands, including creosote and saltbush-dominated desert scrub, yucca, honey mesquite, and greasewood.

Food


Insects

Bell’s Sparrows eat seeds and insects during the breeding season, taking beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, and other insects, plus spiders, seeds, small fruits, and vegetation. During the nonbreeding season, they feed mostly on seeds from grasses, pigweed, and mustard plant.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.8–2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
10–16 days
Nestling Period
9–10 days
Egg Description
Pale blue or bluish white speckled with brownish, ruddy, or black.
Condition at Hatching
Skin orange-yellow, with sparse patches of down.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest, which is an open cup of twigs and coarse grasses, lined with finer grasses and thin bark, and finally feathers, wool, and animal hair. Nests measure about 4 inches across, and the inner cup is typically about 2.5 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Bell’s Sparrow put their nests mainly within shrubs, but also in bunchgrasses and occasionally on the ground under shrubs, including California sagebrush, brittlebush, white sage, black sage, California buckwheat, bush mallow, chamise, cholla, willow, and others.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Bell’s Sparrows spend most of their time on the ground, foraging under dense shrubs. They tend to run rather than fly, and they often cock their tails or flick them upward. In spring and early summer, males become much more conspicuous when they perch atop shrubs to sing. Almost immediately after finishing a bout of song, they drop directly to the ground and continue foraging, also guarding their mates from advances of other males (a common behavior for many birds). Predators of nests and young include Loggerhead Shrikes, Common Ravens, ground squirrels, and possibly Greater Roadrunners.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Because of the very recent taxonomic split from Bell's Sparrow, the latest population trends from the North American Breeding Bird Survey are only for "Sage Sparrow," which included both Bell's Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrow. These trends indicate that Sage Sparrow populations were stable, with a possible small decline, between 1966 and 2014. Partners in Flight estimates the combined breeding population of Sagebrush Sparrow and the closely related Bell’s Sparrow at 4 million, with 95% spending part of the year in the U.S., and 25% wintering in Mexico. These two species rate an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The Sage Sparrow was a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species. The San Clemente subspecies of Bell's Sparrow is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. Bell’s Sparrows depend on fairly open shrubby communities that tend to be maintained by natural fire regimes. Fire suppression can lead to altered, communities with denser shrubs and lower numbers of Bell’s Sparrows. In densely populated Southern California Bell’s Sparrows has also faced habitat loss as suburban development creeps into their attractive coastal sagebrush habitat.

Credits

Range Map Help

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Migration

Resident to short-distance migrant. Most Bell’s Sparrows remain in their breeding range year-round. The subspecies that lives in the Mojave Desert migrates to southern California and western Arizona, where they can be very difficult to distinguish from Sagebrush Sparrows that also winter there.

Find This Bird

As with many inconspicuous sparrows, the best way to find Bell’s 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—particularly in coastal sagebrush in southern California—these sparrows are fairly numerous. 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.

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Sagebrush and Bell’s Sparrows, eBird, March 6, 2014.

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