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Brewer's Sparrow

Spizella breweri ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

Songs

  • Song and calls
     
  • Courtesy of Macaulay Library
    © Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Male Brewer’s Sparrows sing dry, trilling songs that fall into two main types: long and short. Long songs last 10–15 seconds and consist of 5–10 distinct sections. They are quite complex—Roger Tory Peterson once likened it to “a Chipping Sparrow trying to sing like a canary.” Males sing long songs early in the breeding season when they are trying to attract mates, and generally stop singing the long versions when they have found a mate. After that they sing mostly short songs, which last 1.5 to 3 seconds and typically consist of 2 trilled sections, with the first usually being faster and higher pitched. Some elements of each song type are nearly identical to phrases sung by Clay-colored and Chipping Sparrows. Short songs continue throughout breeding, and sometimes even at night or on the wintering grounds. Songs differ somewhat in quality between the two subspecies, with the sagebrush subspecies being somewhat buzzier than the timberline form.

Calls

Call is a soft tsip or seep, similar to other Spizella sparrows. Females give soft twittering calls when soliciting courtship feeding or copulation from males.

Search the Macaulay Library online archive for more sounds and videos

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.

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