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Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Aimophila ruficeps ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The hot, rocky hillsides of the Southwest can look inhospitable on a baking summer day, but they’re exactly the kind of place Rufous-crowned Sparrows call home. These bulky, long-tailed sparrows forage on the ground beneath sparse shrubs and grasses. These are attractive sparrows with reddish toned upperparts and neat gray underparts, accentuated by a white eyering and a white malar or whisker stripe on the face. Males sing a short, jumbled song with a bubbly quality that recalls a House Wren.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9–6.3 in
15–16 cm
Wingspan
8.3 in
21 cm
Weight
0.6–0.7 oz
16–21 g
Relative Size
Larger and bulkier than a Chipping Sparrow; smaller than a White-crowned Sparrow.
Other Names
  • Bruant à calotte fauve (French)
  • Zacatonero coronirrufo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • Rufous-crowned Sparrows are fairly sedentary birds that don’t migrate and spend much of their time walking or running on the ground between shrubs and grasses. They are not strong fliers, and the farthest distance they’ve ever been recorded flying at one go is about 540 feet.
  • Despite being capable of flight, Rufous-crowned Sparrows tend to stay on or near the ground where they get both shade and cover from predators. They usually build their nests on the ground as well, sometimes hiding them underneath the overhanging edge of a rock or woody stem.
  • The oldest known Rufous-crowned Sparrow was a male, and at least 5 years, 1 month old when it was recaptured and rereleased at a banding station in New Mexico in 2009.

Habitat


Scrub

Look for Rufous-crowned Sparrows on dry, open hillsides covered with grasses, rocks, and scattered shrubs, including coastal sagebrush, open chaparral, scrub oaks, pinyon pine, and other woody plants. Dense woody growth is unsuitable. They occur from sea level up to about 10,000 feet elevation (in Mexico). Periodic wildfire helps Rufous-crowned Sparrows by keeping the habitat open, and this species tends to be more common in areas that have burned in the past 15 years, according to data from California.

Food


Seeds

Rufous-crowned Sparrows eat mainly insects in spring and summer, and mainly stems, shoots, and seeds in winter. They tend to walk or hop, pecking or scratching at the ground under the protective cover of shrubs or dense grasses; occasionally taking to shrub and tree branches. Insect prey includes crickets, grasshoppers, ground beetles, scale insects, and ants. Plant food includes wild oats, chickweed, knotweed, pigweed, and parts of other herbaceous plants.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Description
Bluish white to white, without spots.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, with eyes closed.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest, which is a thick, loose cup made of dried grasses and rootlets with a few twigs or bark strips. She lines the nest cup with fine grasses and horse, deer, or other animal hair. When finished the nest is about 4 inches across and 2.5 inches tall, with an inner cup that is about 2.5 inches across and 1.5 inches deep.

Nest Placement

Ground

They usually build their nests on the ground or in a small depression; occasionally near the base of a shrub up to about 1.5 feet off the ground. Nests are often well concealed under grass, leaves, or rocks.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Rufous-crowned Sparrows are wary birds that stay close to the ground among shrubs or grasses, often running to escape danger rather than flying. They are weak fliers. When defending their territories, males stiffen their bodies, droop their wings, fluff out their feathers and raise their tail about 45 degrees. When protecting their nests, Rufous-crowned Sparrows may drop off the nest or a nearby bush, feign injury with a “broken wing” display, or scurry along the ground away from the nest in hopes of distracting the predator. They chase away other Rufous-crowned Sparrows and occasionally a few other species, including Mexican Jays, Painted Bunting, Lazuli Bunting, California Towhee, and Spotted Towhee. The species is not just nonmigratory; it tends to stay on its territory and does not group up into large winter flocks the way many sparrows do. They seem to be monogamous through the breeding season and may remain in pairs year-round. Mexican Jays and rattlesnakes are likely predators of eggs, young, and possibly adults.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Rufous-crowned Sparrows are fairly numerous and widespread, but their numbers declined by 45% between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2 million individuals, with 54% of the population living in the U.S. and 46% in Mexico. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Rufous-crowned Sparrows is not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. These sparrows depend on a fairly specific set of habitat requirements, which renders them vulnerable to habitat degradation and fragmentation. Suppression of natural wildfires has allowed their open scrub habitat to grow into dense stands that are unsuitable for this species. Evidence from California suggests that habitat remains suitable for Rufous-crowned Sparrows for up to 15 years after a fire, but becomes less suitable thereafter. Development of their hillside habitat into subdivisions and avocado or lemon orchards has also removed some of their habitat from the landscape. There are suggestions that grazing and trampling by cattle can open up dense habitat and make areas more suitable for Rufous-crowned Sparrows.

Credits

Range Map Help

Rufous-crowned Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident (nonmigratory).

Find This Bird

Rufous-crowned Sparrows are habitat specialists, so the first step in finding them is to find a dry, rocky hillside with shrub cover that is not too dense. These birds tend to stay hidden and close to the ground except when singing, so you’ll have best results if you try during spring or early summer when males will be singing in the early morning from exposed perches. At other times of year you’ll need to be patient and keep a distance as you wait for foraging sparrows to move into open spaces between shrubs or patches of grass.

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