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Sagebrush Sparrow

Artemisiospiza nevadensis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Sagebrush Sparrow is an elegant sparrow intimately tied to the great open spaces of the intermountain West. They live among sagebrush and other shrubs, where they forage mostly on the ground for insects and seeds. In early summer, males sing an abrupt, lively song from the shrub tops, where their soft gray upperparts complement the muted, gray-green sage. These sparrows depend on intact, relatively undisturbed tracts of sage for their breeding success; they winter in desert scrub and grasslands in the Southwest and Mexico.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–5.9 in
12–15 cm
Weight
0.5–0.8 oz
15–22 g
Relative Size
About the size of a Song Sparrow; slightly larger than a Brewer’s Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Bell's Sparrow (part) (English)
  • Bruant de Bell (French)
  • Zacatonero de artemisa (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Taxonomy can be confusing, even for the experts. In the nineteenth century the common sparrow of the sagebrush was known as Bell’s Sparrow, and ornithologists noted it consisted of several regional forms. By 1910 they had split Bell’s Sparrow into the two distinct species we know today, but a revision in 1957 lumped them together as the Sage Sparrow. In 2013 they were split back into two species, now known as the Sagebrush Sparrow and Bell’s Sparrow.
  • Sagebrush Sparrows are faithful to very specific sites from year to year, especially if they breed successfully. One male returned to the same territory in Oregon for at least 6 successive years.
  • The Sagebrush Sparrow’s song is composed of elements that are fine-tuned for the vast, windy steppe—the patterns and frequencies carry well in the open, windy landscape without degrading.
  • Perhaps appropriately for a bird of the West’s wide open spaces, Sagebrush Sparrows hold some of the largest territories known for any sparrow species.
  • The oldest recorded Sage Sparrow (which may have been a Bell's Sparrow rather than a Sagebrush Sparrow- see above fact about the species' taxonomy) was a male, and at least 9 years, 3 months old. It was banded in California in 2001, and recaptured in the same state in 2010.

Habitat


Scrub

Sagebrush Sparrows breed in shrubsteppe habitats consisting of shrubs up to about 6 feet tall, especially big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) as well as saltbush, rabbitbrush, shadscale, and bitterbrush. They are mostly found below about 5,600 feet elevation. They also nest in mixed sagebrush-juniper habitat that borders open sagebrush steppe. During migration and winter, Sagebrush Sparrows often congregate in loose flocks with other sparrow species and use dry shrublands or grasslands, including creosote and saltbush-dominated desert scrub, yucca, honey mesquite, and greasewood.

Food


Insects

Omnivorous and opportunistic during the breeding season, taking beetles, grasshoppers and other insects, spiders, seeds, small fruits, and succulent vegetation. During the nonbreeding season, the Sagebrush Sparrow feeds mostly on seeds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–4 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.8 in
1.8–2 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.6 in
1.4–1.5 cm
Incubation Period
10–16 days
Nestling Period
9–10 days
Egg Description
Pale blue or bluish white speckled with brownish, ruddy, or black.
Condition at Hatching
Skin orange-yellow, with sparse patches of down.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest, which is an open cup of twigs and coarse grasses, lined with finer grasses and thin bark, and finally feathers, wool, and animal hair. Nests measure about 4 inches across, and the inner cup is typically about 2.5 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Shrub

Sagebrush Sparrows put their nests mainly within shrubs, but also in bunchgrasses and occasionally on the ground under shrubs. They prefer taller shrubs with larger canopies, providing more cover. Ground nests benefit from warmth early on in the breeding season, but nests in shrub canopies benefit from greater air circulation later on, as the summer grows hotter. Sagebrush Sparrows are closely associated with big sagebrush, but may choose other shrub species in areas with higher shrub diversity. They tend to build their nests under densest cover within the shrub, and nearer the main stem than the outer edges. They also tend to avoid southwest aspects, possibly because of exposure to the afternoon sun.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Sagebrush Sparrows tend to be inconspicuous, and spend most of their time running and foraging under dense shrubs, tail cocked upward and flicking. During territory establishment and breeding in spring and early summer, males perch atop shrubs to sing. Almost immediately after finishing a bout of song, they drop directly to the ground and continue foraging or protecting their mates from advances of other males (a common behavior for many birds, known as mate-guarding). Unlike most migratory songbirds, Sagebrush Sparrows often arrive on the breeding grounds already paired. The males don’t start vigorous singing for a few days after arrival; the songs may function more in territory defense than mate attraction by this stage. Females build the nests while males continue singing. Sagebrush Sparrows frequently raise two broods (occasionally one, and rarely three), and juveniles from first clutches form small flocks in July, to be joined in late August by second-clutch juveniles and adults. Sagebrush Sparrows on migration form small, mixed species flocks with other sparrows.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Because of the very recent taxonomic split from Bell's Sparrow, the latest population trends from the North American Breeding Bird Survey are only for "Sage Sparrow," which included both Bell's Sparrow and Sagebrush Sparrow. These trends indicate that Sage Sparrow populations were stable, with a possible small decline, between 1966 and 2015. Partners in Flight estimates the combined breeding population of Sagebrush Sparrow and the closely related Bell’s Sparrow at 4 million, with 95% spending part of the year in the U.S., and 25% wintering in Mexico. Sagebrush Sparrow rates a 12 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. It is not on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List. Sagebrush Sparrows depend on sagebrush and will abandon habitats that become altered by cheatgrass invasion, sagebrush and other shrub removal, or overgrazing of native forbs by livestock. Habitat fragmentation can expose Sagebrush Sparrows to Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism.

Credits

Range Map Help

Sagebrush Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance migrant.

Find This Bird

As with many inconspicuous sparrows, the best way to find Sagebrush Sparrows is to look for them in the early morning during the breeding season, when males perch out in the open on tall shrubs and sing for your attention. At other times they may be considerably harder to find. Just be aware that in the right habitat—undisturbed sagebrush—these sparrows are fairly numerous, and they tend to forage on the ground and scurry rather than fly between patches of shrub cover. Patient watching and listening either for the sounds of foraging or for this bird’s bell-like tink call will help you find them.

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Sagebrush and Bell’s Sparrows, eBird, March 6, 2014.

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