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Lincoln's Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The dainty Lincoln's Sparrow has a talent for concealing itself. It sneaks around the ground amid willow thickets in wet meadows, rarely straying from cover. When it decides to pop up and sing from a willow twig, its sweet, jumbling song is more fitting of a House Wren than a sparrow. Though its song might conceal its sparrowness, its plumage says otherwise. This sparrow looks as if it is wearing a finely tailored suit with a buffy mustachial stripe and delicate streaking down its buffy chest and sides.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.1–5.9 in
13–15 cm
Weight
0.6–0.7 oz
17–19 g
Relative Size
Larger than a Wilson's Warbler, smaller than a Song Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Bruant de Lincoln (French)
  • Sabanero de Lincoln, Gorriòn de Lincoln (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Sometimes, singing a beautiful song might not be enough to win over a female. In a laboratory study, female Lincoln's Sparrows were more attracted to males that sang during colder mornings more than those singing during warmer mornings. This may be because males singing in the cold showed off more than just their song; singing in the cold requires more energy and could mean that males singing in the cold would make better mates.
  • John James Audubon named the Lincoln's Sparrow after his travel companion Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied him on an expedition to the coast of Labrador. The expedition found the sparrow in a valley in Natashquan, Quebec, and Mr. Lincoln was the only person who managed to bring back a specimen for study.
  • The Lincoln's Sparrow shows less geographical variation in song than any other species in its genus, perhaps a result of high dispersal rates among juveniles.
  • The oldest recorded Lincoln's Sparrow was a male, and at least 7 years, 11 months old when he was recaptured and released during banding operations in Colorado on 2002. He had been banded in the same state in 1995.

Habitat


Scrub

In mountainous regions during the summer months, Lincoln's Sparrows are most common in wet meadows dotted with dense patches of willows, alders, sedges, and corn lily. At lower elevations they use patches of aspens, cottonwoods, and willows as well as shrubby areas near streams. During migration they stop over in fields, forest edges, and other areas with thickets. In the winter, they use tropical forests, pine-oak forests, tropical scrub, pastures, and shrubby fields.

Food


Insects

Lincoln's Sparrows eat insects such as beetles, flies, caterpillars, moths, leafhoppers, and aphids. In the winter they also eat small seeds and occasionally seed from ground feeders. They scratch the ground under thickets to uncover insects and seeds or pick food off low shrubs.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.7–2.2 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
10–13 days
Nestling Period
10–11 days
Egg Description
Pale greenish to pinkish white with brown specks and blotches.
Condition at Hatching
Eyes closed, naked with fine grayish black down along the back.
Nest Description

Before the female starts building a nest she often digs out a small depression in the ground in which to place the nest. Over the next 2–3 days she weaves together willow bark and dried sedges and grasses to form a cup-shaped nest. When she completes the base, she lines the inside of the nest with soft plant material. The completed nest is about 4 inches in diameter and 2 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Ground

Lincoln's Sparrows are ground nesters. The female builds a nest on the ground or just above the ground inside a willow or birch shrub that is surrounded by a thick cover of sedges and flowering plants such as corn lily and buttercup.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Lincoln's Sparrows spend a lot of time sneaking around on the ground in search of insects or small seeds, never straying far from cover. They also perch in low trees and shrubs to forage or to announce their presence. When they fly between trees and shrubs they make direct flights, often holding their tails up before landing. Males defend their territories with song and will threaten intruders with buzzing calls and wing-flapping. When the female is ready to mate, she approaches the male and flutters her wings the way a juvenile bird begs for food. They form monogamous pair bonds during the breeding season, but they do not maintain those bonds the rest of the year. Once on the nest the female is especially secretive. When disturbed, she slips quietly off the nest and runs mouselike with head down through the vegetation for several feet before flying up off the ground. During migration Lincoln's Sparrows often associate with other sparrows, including White-crowned, Song, and Swamp Sparrows. In the winter they are usually solitary, but sometimes forage with small groups of other sparrows.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Lincoln's Sparrow populations seem to have been stable overall between 1966 and 2015, despite a few regional declines particularly in the eastern part of its range, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 70 million, with 48% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 86% in Canada, and 49% wintering in Mexico. The species rates a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Lincoln's Sparrow is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species, and is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Lincoln's Sparrow appears to be vulnerable to livestock grazing or human disturbance in their subalpine wetland breeding habitat. Like other birds, such as Willow Flycatchers, that rely on wet meadows for breeding, changes to water flows through grazing, water diversions, or climate change can affect habitat quality. Like virtually all migrant songbirds, Lincoln's Sparrows are vulnerable to collisions with structures such as TV towers and buildings.

Credits

Range Map Help

Lincoln
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Medium-distance migrant.

Backyard Tips

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.

Find This Bird

Lincoln's Sparrows are secretive little sparrows, but they are not impossible to see. Listen for their wrenlike song in wet montane meadows from mid-May through mid-July in the mountainous regions of the West or in Alaska or Canada. They tend to sing in pines along the edges of meadows or in low willow thickets, so walk along edges listening for their bubbly song. They don't tend to move much while they are singing, so you'll have time to search for any that you hear. During migration and winter they are not as obvious, but a little bit of gentle pishing in sparrow-laden fields and shrubby areas might encourage one to peek out of a shrub, giving you just enough time to grab your binoculars for a look. Sparrows tend to pass through in mixed flocks, during migration, so those first few weeks are a great time to check brushy fields for Lincoln's Sparrows.

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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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