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Harris's Sparrow Life History


Habitat ForestsHarris's Sparrows breed in semiforested tundra areas in northern Canada. Here the open tundra is broken up by patches of white pine, black spruce, larch, alder, and willow mixed with dwarf shrubs, sedges, and dense patches of lichens. In the winter, they use hedgerows, agricultural fields, shrubby pastures, backyards, and shrubby areas near streams. They generally do not use dense woods or dry shortgrass prairies. Back to top


Food SeedsSeeds, fruits, plant material, and insects are all part of the Harris's Sparrow diet. During the nonbreeding season they eat mainly seeds from ragweed, knotweed, and goosefoot, but they also visit bird feeders. Early in the breeding season when insects are less abundant they eat a lot of crowberries (a relative of the blueberry), bearberries, and other berries that are still on shrubs from the previous growing season. Once the tundra warms up they eat flies, beetles, butterflies, and other insects. They also eat plant buds, sedges, grasses, and young spruce needles. Back to top


Nest Placement

Nest GroundThe female builds a nest on the ground usually below a short alder, spruce, dwarf birch, or dwarf Labrador tea. She tends to build the nest on the side of the shrub that is out of the prevailing winds.

Nest Description

Over a period of 2–3 days, the female builds a cup-shaped nest of mosses, small twigs, and lichens. She lines the nest with dried sedges and grasses. The inside of the nest is about 2.5 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
Egg Length:0.7-1.0 in (1.8-2.5 cm)
Egg Width:0.6-0.7 in (1.5-1.8 cm)
Incubation Period:12-14 days
Nestling Period:8-10 days
Egg Description:Pale green with irregular spots and blotches.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless and naked with sparse gray down.
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Behavior Ground ForagerLike other sparrows, Harris's Sparrows hop along the ground scratching at the surface or jump to pick food off a low branch. Although they spend a lot of time foraging on the ground, they hop into small shrubs and trees to rest or to sing. If they feel threatened they also tend to fly into a tree or shrub rather than run along the ground to seek cover. Males and females arrive on the breeding grounds at about the same time and start forming pairs within a week. Males sing from exposed perches in trees and shrubs to establish territory boundaries. Males and females form monogamous bonds during the breeding season, but they find new mates each year. Males tend to return to the same territory year after year especially if they succeeded in raising young. Though pairs are solitary during the breeding season, they forage with other Harris's Sparrows as well as other sparrow species on the wintering grounds. Foraging flocks may look friendly, but these flocks have a pecking order; older individuals with darker throat patches dominate the younger, lighter colored birds within the flock and may chase or push them out of the way. Back to top


Conservation DecliningHarris’s Sparrows breed in remote areas of northern Canada, outside the area covered by the North American Breeding Bird Survey. The best long-term data on their overall population comes from the Christmas Bird Count, conducted on their wintering grounds in the United States. This survey suggests that the species declined by 1.8% per year between 1965 and 2003, resulting in a cumulative decline of 49% during that time. Additional surveys conducted since then indicate a cumulative decline of 63% from 1970–2014. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 2 million, all of which breed in northern Canada and winter in the United States. Harris's Sparrow is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. The species rates a 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. The causes of decline are not known but this bird's restricted range increases its vulnerability to habitat loss. In the U.S. for example, changing agricultural practices that encourage removal of hedgerows reduces the amount of available habitat for Harris's Sparrows. On the breeding grounds, logging and resource extraction may also reduce breeding habitat. Climate change, which has stronger effects at higher latitudes, may also alter the forest-tundra margins where this species breeds. Back to top

Backyard Tips

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.

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Karlson, Kevin and D Rosselet. (2015). Birding by Impression. Living Bird 25:34-42.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Norment, C. J., S. A. Shackleton, Doris J. Watt, Peter Pyle and Michael A. Patten. (2016). Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula), version 3.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight (2017). Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

Rising, J. D. (1996). A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, NY, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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