Living Bird Magazine
Harris's SparrowZonotrichia querula
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Passerellidae
It's not often that a sparrow takes center stage, but the Harris's Sparrow is a showstopper with its handsome black bib and pink bill. It’s North America's largest sparrow and the only songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world. In winter it settles in the south-central Great Plains, where it is a backyard favorite. Unfortunately, Harris's Sparrow populations are declining; its restricted range make it vulnerable to habitat loss on the wintering and breeding grounds.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Unless you are ready to brave a trip to far northern Canada in the summer, you'll need to catch the Harris's Sparrow during migration or on the wintering grounds. Unlike many sparrows that tend to skulk around in dense scrubby patches of vegetation, Harris's Sparrows aren't very shy and often forage out in the open. Look for them foraging with other sparrows in shrubby areas and fields. Their size alone should make them stand out in the crowd. They also visit bird feeders, so if you live in their wintering range, try putting up a ground or platform feeder and stocking it with black oil sunflower seeds. Although they winter in a relatively small part of the continent, they tend to wander a lot during migration so you never know where one might show up. One or more individuals have shown up in every state in the lower 48.
- Chingolo de Harris (Spanish)
- Bruant à face noire (French)
This species often comes to bird feeders, and likes black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. 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.
Birdscaping your yard to include brush piles and other bird friendly features can provide spots for them to forage and take refuge during migration and the winter. Learn more about birdscaping at Habitat Network.
Bird-friendly Winter Gardens, Birdsleuth, 2016.
- Cool Facts
- Just like siblings fighting over candy, older Harris's Sparrows often win the best access to food and roost sites. To determine why older sparrows dominated foraging flocks, researchers came up with a clever test. They noticed that older males have larger bibs, and dyed the feathers of young birds to create an artificially large bib. These younger birds with their new black bibs rose within the dominance hierarchy just like their older flock mates.
- The Harris's Sparrow was named after Edward Harris, a friend of John J. Audubon, who collected a specimen in 1843. Audubon eagerly named the specimen thinking he was the first person to do so. Little did he know that Thomas Nuttall collected the bird first in 1834 and named it "Mourning Finch."
- Harris's Sparrows return to breed in the tundra when it's still pretty cold up there and not many insects are out and about. With fewer insects to eat, they turn to crowberries. Although not as protein rich as an insect, berries can satisfy an egg-laying female’s energy needs. Researchers calculated that she would need to eat around 675 fruits to meet her needs for the day.
- The oldest recorded Harris's Sparrow was at least 11 years, 8 months old, when it was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Kansas in 1983. It had been banded in the same state n 1972.
- The Harris's Sparrow is the only North American songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world.
- Because of its remote and restricted breeding grounds, the Harris's Sparrow was one of the last North American species to have its nest described. The first nest was found in 1931 in Churchill, Manitoba, by George M. Sutton, who went on to attend Cornell University and became an influential ornithologist and artist.