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Field Sparrow

Spizella pusilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The clear, “bouncing-ball” trill of the Field Sparrow is a familiar summer sound in brushy fields and roadsides of the East and Midwest. The singer is a small, warm-toned sparrow with a rusty cap, neat white eyering, and pink bill. Though still common, Field Sparrows have declined sharply in the last half-century, partly because of the expansion of suburbs, where Field Sparrows will not nest. Populations in the prairies have remained strong thanks in part to measures like the Conservation Reserve Program.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.9 in
12–15 cm
Wingspan
7.9 in
20 cm
Weight
0.4–0.5 oz
11–15 g
Relative Size
Smaller and more slender than a Song Sparrow; larger than a Black-capped or Carolina Chickadee.
Other Names
  • Bruant des champs (French)
  • Chimbito Llanero (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • If a male Field Sparrow survives the winter, it usually returns to breed in the same territory each year. The female is less likely to return to the same territory, and young sparrows only rarely return the next year to where they were born.
  • The male Field Sparrow starts singing as soon as he gets back in the spring. He sings vigorously until he finds a mate, but after that he sings only occasionally.
  • Female Field Sparrows arriving on the breeding grounds may experience a rude welcome from males seeking a mate. An unmated male will often fly at and strike a female on his territory, sometimes driving her to the ground. Such an approach seems to seal the deal; by the following day the male is following his mate closely as she searches for a nest site.
  • Field Sparrows often breed more than once a season. They build a new nest each time, building them higher and higher off the ground as the season progresses. Early spring nests are often on the ground, where they’re less visible. As leaves and groundcover grow the birds build their nests in bushes and trees, where they’re safer from snakes and other predators.
  • Field Sparrows are vulnerable to parasitism by Brown-Headed Cowbirds, which lay their eggs in the sparrows’ nests. In some Iowa and Illinois study areas, 50 percent to 80 percent of all nests contained cowbird eggs. In areas with high rates of parasitism, Field Sparrows physically attacked models of cowbirds placed near their nests; where little parasitism occurs, the sparrows showed only a mild reaction to the models.
  • In winter Field Sparrows may form mixed feeding flocks with other species, including White-throated and Song Sparrows. Smaller and less aggressive than other sparrows, Field Sparrows are usually at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy in these mixed flocks. Their subordinate role means that they may have to take extra risks to gain access to food, such as returning to a feeding site first after a predator has flushed the flock.
  • The oldest recorded Field Sparrow was at least 10 years, 4 months old when it was recaptured and rereleased at a banding station in Maryland in 2007. It had been banded in the same state in 1999.

Habitat


Scrub

Field Sparrows seek out open habitat with low perches, such as abandoned agricultural fields and pastures, fencerows, road and forest edges, and openings in wooded areas. You may also spot them occasionally in Christmas tree farms, orchards, and nurseries. They’ll breed in fields that were recently burned or cultivated as long as there are some trees or other perches available, but will abandon such settings as thickets of trees grow back. Shy around human habitation, Field Sparrows avoid breeding near where people live. In winter, look for them in settings similar to their summer habitats: abandoned fields and pastures, forest edges, and fencerows. In migration they’ll occasionally turn up in suburban yards.

Food


Insects

Field sparrows eat mainly grass seeds in winter, then switch to a blend of seeds and insect prey as the weather warms. Their small bills limit them to small seeds, including those of crabgrass, panic grass, foxtail, and horseweed. Insects make up about half of the summer diet. Prey includes butterflies, weevils, beetles, grasshoppers, cicadas, and spittlebugs, as well as spiders and snails. Parents feed nestlings a diet of spiders and insects, including caterpillars, grasshoppers, flies, bees, and beetles.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-5 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.8 in
1.5–2.1 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.6 in
1.1–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
10–17 days
Nestling Period
5–8 days
Egg Description
White to creamy, spotted with pale purple, reddish-brown, or gray.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless, eyes closed, with sparse, mouse-gray down along feather tracts.
Nest Description

Only the female Field Sparrow builds the nest, although her mate may help by offering nesting material. Working mainly from early to late morning, she first weaves a framework of crisscrossed grass stems, then constructs an open cup combining coarse and fine grasses lined with grass, rootlets, and hair. It takes 5–8 days to build the season’s first nest; subsequent nests take only 2–3 days to complete. The finished nest measures 3.3 to 8.3 inches across and 1.9 to 4.3 inches high, with a cup depth ranging from 1 to 2.4 inches.

Nest Placement

Ground

Female Field Sparrows examine several potential nest sites before settling on a location. In spring, nests are often built on the ground in a clump of grass or at the base of a shrub, where they’re less visible. Once grasses get taller and bushes and trees begin to leaf out, Field Sparrows build subsequent nests a foot to as much as 10 feet off the ground, where they’re less accessible to snakes and other predators. Nest sites include blackberry bushes, stands of St. John’s wort, honeysuckle, and coralberry, as well as in dogwood, redcedar, hawthorn, and elms. Field Sparrows avoid human habitation when selecting a nest site.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Field Sparrows hop on the ground as they forage for seeds and insects, often near shrubs or other cover. Like other small sparrows, they have a distinctive style of feeding on grass seed heads: a bird flies to the top of a tall grass stem, then uses its weight to “ride” the stem to the ground, where it pins the seed head and plucks individual seeds. Field Sparrows also pounce on insect prey from low perches. Male Field Sparrows arrive on the breeding grounds 10 to 20 days ahead of females and set up exclusive territories, often spending hours chasing other males along disputed boundaries. Pairs form within a day or two of the females’ arrival. Although Field Sparrows are almost always monogamous, first-time breeding males that form pairs late in the season may end up feeding a nestling that was fathered by a different male. Following the breeding season, Field Sparrows form loose flocks that winter in fallow fields, pastures, and along roads and forest edges.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Field Sparrows are common, although their populations have dropped considerably in the last 50 years. Between 1966 and 2015 the North American Breeding Bird Survey estimated a decline of over 2% per year, amounting to a cumulative decline of 69% during that time. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 7.6 million, with 98% spending at least part of the year in the U.S., 2% breeding in Canada, and 5% wintering in Mexico. The species rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, and the 2014 State of the Birds Report lists Field Sparrow as a Common Bird in Steep Decline, but it is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. The Breeding Bird Survey records an average increase in only one region of North America, the Prairie Pothole region. This may be due to the grassland habitat protection efforts of the Conservation Reserve Program, funded by the Farm Bill. Field Sparrows tend not to nest in human-dominated landscapes such as tilled agricultural fields and suburbs; the great expansion of human development in recent decades has likely permanently reduced the area available to Field Sparrows for breeding. Field Sparrow habitat can best be maintained by protecting some woody vegetation in fields undergoing succession, and by thinning shrubs and saplings in forested habitat to maintain openings.

Credits

Range Map Help

Field Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Backyard Tips

This species often comes to bird feeders. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

Find This Bird

Field Sparrows are easiest to find in the early morning during spring and summer, when males give their long, “bouncing ball” songs from exposed perches. You can find these fairly common birds by searching areas of shrubby grasslands or overgrown, weedy fields. Males tend to sing from obvious perches such as fence lines and the tops of small trees. At other times of year, pay attention to flocks of sparrows in such habitats, looking for smaller, warm-colored birds foraging near the ground—bearing in mind that such flocks may contain multiple species of sparrows.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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