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Lincoln's Sparrow Life History


ScrubIn 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. Back to top


InsectsLincoln'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. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundLincoln'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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
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.
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Ground ForagerLincoln'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. Back to top


Low Concern

Lincoln's Sparrow populations seem to have been stable overall between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 88 million and rates them 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. 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.

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Ammon, Elisabeth M. (1995). Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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