Living Bird Magazine
Brewer's SparrowSpizella breweri
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Passerellidae
Brewer’s Sparrows are at first glance so subtly marked that they’ve been called the “bird without a field mark.” These streaky, gray-brown sparrows are notable for their reliance on sagebrush breeding habitat, and their plumage is elegantly tuned to their muted, gray-green home. They’re the most abundant bird across the vast sagebrush steppe, and their long, trilling songs are a signature sound of the landscape. A markedly different subspecies lives among the stunted trees and shrubs at timberline in Canadian mountains.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Brewer’s Sparrows are habitat specialists, so the first step in finding them is to find their habitat. In spring or early summer, head out into the sagebrush early in the morning and listen for a male to sing his long, trilled song. You may also spot a small, gray-brown bird unobtrusively foraging within or on the ground below a clump of sagebrush. In winter, visit desert grasslands, where there are sometimes large flocks of several species of sparrows, including Brewer’s.
- Chingolo de Brewer (Spanish)
- Bruant de Brewer (French)
- Cool Facts
- Adapted to arid environments year-round (sagebrush in summer; desert grasslands in winter), Brewer’s Sparrows can go weeks without drinking.
- While large wintering flocks usually communicate with soft call notes, a rare occasion might inspire a male to sing his “long song.” This spurs on other members of the flock, and soon, there’s a veritable chorus.
- The oldest known Brewer’s Sparrow was at least 5 years, 2 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased at a banding site in Colorado.
- In spring and early summer, male Brewer’s Sparrows sing a long, rich, trilling song that can last 15 seconds. Roger Tory Peterson wrote that they sound like “a Chipping Sparrow trying to sing like a canary.” Once the males pair up with their mates for the season, they switch to a much shorter, 3-second song consisting of two trills.
- Brewer’s Sparrows are so unremarkable looking that they’re remarkable. In 1923, the naturalist William Dawson wrote that Nature had “done her utmost to produce a bird of non-committal appearance… Mere brown might have been conspicuous by default, but brownish, broken up by hazy streakings of other brownish or dusky… has given us a bird which… may be said to have no mark of distinction whatever—just bird.” Later researchers noted that they preferred to describe the bird as “subtle.”
- Brewer’s Sparrows’ lives are intimately tied to the sagebrush: it’s where they eat, sleep and nest. But there’s an exception: the “Timberline” form lives in an entirely different habitat at high elevations in Canadian mountains, where there’s little or no sage.