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Harris's Sparrow

Zonotrichia querula ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

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.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.7–7.9 in
17–20 cm
Wingspan
10.6 in
27 cm
Weight
0.9–1.7 oz
26–49 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Song Sparrow, smaller than an Eastern Towhee.
Other Names
  • Bruant à face noire (French)

Cool Facts

  • 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.
  • The Harris's Sparrow is the only North American songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else in the world.
  • 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.

Habitat


Forest

Harris'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.

Food


Seeds

Seeds, 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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–1 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.
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.

Nest Placement

Ground

The 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.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Like 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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Harris’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.

Credits

  • Norment, C. J., S. A. Shackleton, D. J. Watt, P. Pyle, and M. A. Patten. 2016. Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula), The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, Ed.). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York.
  • Karlson, K. T., and D. Rossselet. 2015. Birding by Impression: A Different Approach to Knowing and Identifying Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, New York.
  • North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2016. The State of North America’s Birds 2016. Environment and Climate Change Canada: Ottawa, Ontario.
  • Partners in Flight. 2012. Species assessment database.
  • Rising, J. D. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, New York, New York.
  • USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2016. Longevity records of North American Birds.

Range Map Help

Harris
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant.

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.

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.

Get Involved

Tell us how many Harris's Sparrows are at your feeders. Join Project FeederWatch and contribute your data to help monitor backyard birds.

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Watch their migration path on the eBird occurrence map for Harris's Sparrow

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