- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Passerellidae
A colorful standout in a family of mostly streaky brown birds, Nelson’s Sparrows have bold yellow-orange faces, gray cheeks, and a neat band of yellow across a finely streaked breast. These notably short-tailed sparrows are furtive creatures, spending most of their time on or near the ground in dense marsh vegetation. They breed mainly in marshes in the northern Great Plains and along the northern Atlantic Coast. In winter they occur in saltmarshes alongside the very similar Saltmarsh Sparrow—the two were considered the same species until 1998.More ID Info
Find This Bird
To find Nelson’s Sparrows on their breeding grounds, look for them in wet meadows and freshwater marshes, often alongside Yellow Rails and LeConte’s Sparrows. Listen for their high, hissing song—it’s short and unremarkable, so patience and bug spray might be needed. During fall, Nelson’s Sparrows migrate toward coastal marshes, to spend the winter mainly in saltmarshes of the southeastern United States. Fall migrants often respond to pishing sounds, but wintering birds are much less likely to.
- Chingolo de Nelson (Spanish)
- Bruant de Nelson (French)
- Cool Facts
- Older field guides refer to the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow,” the species that until 1998 included both Nelson’s Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow. Differences in their genetics, songs, and plumages led scientists to recognize two species.
- The coastal-breeding “Atlantic” (or “Acadian”) form of Nelson’s Sparrow occasionally hybridizes with Saltmarsh Sparrows where the two overlap in range in New England.
- It’s thought that Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows diverged about 11,000 years ago as the glaciers retreated northward following the end of the last glaciation. Their closest living relative is the Seaside Sparrow, from which Nelson’s and Saltmarsh are separated by about 600,000 years.
- Nelson's Sparrow’s name commemorates Edward William Nelson, who was responsible for field surveys in Alaska, Death Valley, and Mexico for the Bureau of Biological Survey, United States Department of Agriculture. Nelson was Chief of the Bureau from 1916 to 1927.
- The oldest recorded Nelson's Sparrow was a male, at least 10 years old, when he was recaptured and re-released during banding operations in Maine.