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Rufous-winged Sparrow Life History


ScrubRufous-winged Sparrows live year-round in desert thornscrub characterized by velvet mesquite, catclaw acacia, desert hackberry, paloverde, and gray thorn, with scattered round-stemmed cholla, cane cholla, chain-fruit cholla, and other cactus species. Native grasses, especially false grama, a shorter grass, and the taller tobosa grass, are critical to Rufous-winged Sparrows’ habitat. Other grasses in their habitat include spider grass, foxtail or bristlegrass, sacaton grass, and annual grama. Flowering plants such as burroweed may also be present. Prior to European settlement, Rufous-winged Sparrows were more widespread, but cattle grazing has eliminated key native grasses and permitted nonnative grasses to invade. Rufous-winged Sparrows avoid canyons, using flat or slightly hilly terrain, often in swales or washes, and they are mostly absent from farms and ranchland. In the southernmost part of the species’ range in Mexico, they do breed in farmland, up to the edge of coastal forests of red and black mangroves.Back to top



Rufous-winged Sparrows forage mostly on the ground, where they hop and walk slowly, searching for seeds, insects, and spiders, their primary foods. They also glean ants and other insects from low vegetation and pull seeds directly from grasses, either while perched on the ground or in brief, fluttering flight. They frequently perch in mesquite or hackberry to pick off caterpillars with their bills. They also pursue insects in flight, including grasshoppers, an important prey item. Rufous-winged Sparrows often remain in one small area for long periods. In early morning, they sometimes forage in the open, but move into shade, both on the ground and in shrubs, as the heat of the day increases. Like most desert birds, they rest there during the hottest part of the day.

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Nest Placement

ShrubNests are set about 4 feet above the ground in a fork of a small tree or bush, often desert hackberry, velvet mesquite, paloverde, or an opuntia or cholla cactus, or sometimes set within a clump of mistletoe.

Nest Description

The female constructs a rather deep cup of coarse grasses lined with finer grasses and hair. Nests average about 4 inches across and 2.7 inches tall, with an interior cup 1.9 inches across and 2.3 inches deep.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-5 eggs
Egg Description:Pale bluish or green, with no markings.
Condition at Hatching:Helpless with sparse dark down.
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Ground Forager Rufous-winged Sparrows mate for life, and a mated pair usually spends each day in close proximity, foraging and roosting together. Although male Rufous-winged Sparrows sing to mark territories, especially during periods of breeding (immediately following the start of rains), it is rare to see conflict between males whose territories adjoin. This has led some researchers to call clusters of breeding Rufous-winged Sparrows “colonies.” After the breeding season, the young may stay in the parents’ territory for several months, and small groups of up to 10 birds may forage near each other during winter.Back to top


Restricted Range

Rufous-winged Sparrow populations have declined, and in some areas have disappeared completely, due to habitat loss from grazing and development. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 200,000 and rates the species a 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. They include it on the Yellow Watch List for species with restricted ranges. Loss of habitat as a result of grazing and urban development has had the greatest effect on populations. Overgrazing by cattle limits native grass cover and allows nonnative grasses, such as Lehmann lovegrass, to proliferate. Rufous-crowned Sparrows, and other native species, avoid areas with infestations of this African grass species.

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Lowther, Peter E., Kathleen D. Groschupf and Stephen M. Russell. (2015). Rufous-winged Sparrow (Peucaea carpalis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2021.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2021.

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

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

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