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Bell's Sparrow

Artemisiospiza belli ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The Bell’s Sparrow is a neat, gray-headed sparrow emblematic of California’s coastal sage and chaparral. They also occur in Baja California, the Mojave Desert, and on San Clemente Island, California (a federally threatened subspecies). Like the very similar Sagebrush Sparrow, these birds spend much of their time foraging for insects and seeds on the ground underneath shrubs. In spring males sing a fast mix of trills and chips from the tallest perches they can find.

Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
  • Size & Shape

    Bell’s Sparrows are small songbirds—medium-sized for sparrows—with relatively long tails. The head is rounded and the bill is fairly short and thick.

  • Color Pattern

    Bell’s Sparrows are dark brown above with a dark gray head, white underparts and a dark spot in the middle of the breast. The dark face has a contrasting white eyering, a white spot before the eye, and strong white and dark stripes bordering the throat. The tail is dark. Juveniles are more uniformly brown, lack the gray head, and are streaky beneath.

  • Behavior

    They are fairly inconspicuous birds that spend much of their time on the ground or concealed in shrubs, except during early summer when males sing from prominent perches. When crossing open areas they tend to run along the ground with the tail held high.

  • Habitat

    Bell’s Sparrows live in shrubby areas of California and Baja California, including coastal sagebrush and chaparral, as well as the Mojave Desert and California’s San Clemente Island. Many are year-round residents, but some migrate to southern California and western Arizona for winter, where they mix with the very similar Sagebrush Sparrow and other species in open, dry habitats.

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    Bell's Sparrow

     
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    Bell's Sparrow

     
    • © Brian L. Sullivan, California, May 2014

Similar Species

The very similar Sagebrush Sparrow breeds in the vast expanses of sagebrush in the intermountain West of North America. The two species’ breeding ranges come together in eastern California, and the species overlap on their wintering grounds. Sagebrush Sparrows are paler, with lighter stripes on the throat and more streaks on the back, than Bell’s Sparrows from coastal California. However, where the two species’ ranges approach each other they can be extremely difficult to tell apart, and many times the best a birder can do on the wintering grounds is mark these birds as Bell’s/Sagebrush. Black-throated Sparrow breeds in more desert habitats of the Southwest than Bell’s Sparrow. The Black-throated Sparrow has a bold black bib, crown, and cheek, and a white stripes over the eye and white malar or “mustache” stripe.

Regional Differences

Bell’s Sparrow consists of four subspecies with somewhat distinct plumages. Two are noticeably dark gray on the head with nearly entirely dark tails and unstreaked backs: these are A. b. belli, which occurs mainly in coastal California sage; and A. b. clementeae, a federally threatened subspecies that occurs only on San Clemente Island. There are also two lighter forms: A. b. canescens, of the Mojave desert region, which closely resembles Sagebrush Sparrow; and A. b. cinerea, of Baja California, which has buffier face markings than the other three subspecies.

Find This Bird

As with many inconspicuous sparrows, the best way to find Bell’s 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—particularly in coastal sagebrush in southern California—these sparrows are fairly numerous. 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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bird image Blue-winged Warbler by Brian Sullivan

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