Living Bird Magazine
Saltmarsh SparrowAmmospiza caudacuta
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Passerellidae
Wearing orange-buff, leaden gray, and rusty brown, Saltmarsh Sparrows are flashes of color hidden in the brown expanses of tidal saltmarshes, their only home. Look for them breeding in marshes of cordgrass, saltgrass, and needlerush that line the Atlantic coast from southern Maine to Virginia; and wintering between Delaware and Florida. Nesting low in tidal marshes, these birds have a tenuous relationship with high tides—the highest of which sometimes inundate the nests briefly. Because of this razor-thin margin for error, Saltmarsh Sparrows are gravely threatened by global sea level rise.More ID Info
Find This Bird
It takes patience to find Saltmarsh Sparrows. Females tend to remain hidden, and males sing unpredictably, often hidden by vegetation, in the large areas they roam. Listen carefully for the rather quiet song; you may need to listen “through” a chorus of louder wrens, blackbirds, rails, and other species. Also look for Saltmarsh Sparrows occasionally feeding on the muddy margins of marshes, or during very high tides taking refuge from the high water in shrubs along roadsides. Fall migrants form small flocks, feed on seeds, and can often be coaxed into view by pishing. In winter they are less conspicuous and also less responsive to pishing.
- saltmarsh sharp-tailed sparrow
- Chingolo Colifino (Spanish)
- Bruant à queue aiguë (French)
- Cool Facts
- Older field guides refer to the “Sharp-tailed Sparrow”—the species that was split into today’s Saltmarsh Sparrow and Nelson’s Sparrow in 1995 on the basis of genetics, songs, and plumages. Nelson’s has a smaller bill, on average, than Saltmarsh Sparrow, and most Nelson’s are found in the marshes of central Canada, though a distinctive grayish subspecies (subvirgata), often called “Acadian” Nelson’s Sparrow, inhabits tidal saltmarshes from Quebec to Massachusetts.
- The Saltmarsh Sparrow has a fascinating breeding system. The male is nonterritorial, promiscuous, and doesn’t provide parental care. Males occupy large, overlapping home ranges, which they do not defend against each other. The reason for this unique system is not known, but it may be related to the frequent destruction of nests by high tides, which requires rapid renesting.
- Breeding success in many Saltmarsh Sparrow populations is limited by storms and especially spring tides (the highest high tides of the month, coinciding with new and full moons), which often flood nests. The most successful nests are those that are begun soon after the high tides of the new moon, because the eggs have a chance to hatch before the arrival of the high tides of the next full moon, two weeks later.
- The oldest recorded Saltmarsh Sparrow was a male at least 9 years 2 months old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Connecticut in 2012.