Photo: Greg W. Lasley/Vireo

Nelson's Sparrow

Ammodramus nelsoni

This marsh-loving sparrow was formerly lumped with Saltmarsh Sparrow under the name Sharp-tailed Sparrow. The Nelson's has an unusual distribution, breeding both far inland and on the coast. In the interior, it summers in freshwater marshes on the northern Great Plains. It also nests in coastal marshes along the southern edges of Hudson Bay and James Bay, and on the Atlantic Coast from Quebec south to Maine.
Conservation status Undoubtedly has declined in some regions with loss of marsh habitat, but still widespread and common.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Fresh and salt marshes. In the interior, it summers on the northern Great Plains, in freshwater marsh with growth of cordgrass and other grasses. On the coast, it nests in salt marsh. During the winter, it lives mainly in coastal salt marshes.
This marsh-loving sparrow was formerly lumped with Saltmarsh Sparrow under the name Sharp-tailed Sparrow. The Nelson's has an unusual distribution, breeding both far inland and on the coast. In the interior, it summers in freshwater marshes on the northern Great Plains. It also nests in coastal marshes along the southern edges of Hudson Bay and James Bay, and on the Atlantic Coast from Quebec south to Maine.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, Interior
  • adult, Atlantic
  • adult, Interior
  • adult, Interior
Feeding Behavior

Forages while walking on the ground or while climbing in marsh plants. Picks items from surface of plants, ground, or water, and sometimes probes in mud.


Eggs

3-5, sometimes 2-6. Greenish white to pale blue-green, heavily dotted with reddish-brown. Incubation is by female only, 11-12 days. Young: Nestlings are usually fed by female alone. Young leave nest about 8-11 days after hatching, may remain with female for another 2-3 weeks. May raise 2 broods per year.


Young

Nestlings are usually fed by female alone. Young leave nest about 8-11 days after hatching, may remain with female for another 2-3 weeks. May raise 2 broods per year.

Diet

Mostly insects and other invertebrates, some seeds. Animal matter makes up much of winter diet and almost all of summer diet. Feeds on insects, spiders, amphipods, small crabs and snails, marine worms, other invertebrates. Also eats seeds of grasses and other marsh plants, especially in fall and winter.


Nesting

Unusual breeding system. Males do not defend territories, but move around large area of marsh, singing to attract females. Both sexes are promiscuous, and no pairs are formed; males take no part in caring for the eggs or young. Nest site is in marsh, usually in raised situation in dense grass clumps. Nests in coastal marshes usually placed just above normal high tide mark. Nest (built by female) is a bulky open cup of grass, sometimes partially domed over, with lining of finer grass.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

More migratory than Saltmarsh Sparrow, leaving its nesting range completely in fall. Those from the interior may migrate to either the southern Atlantic Coast or the Gulf Coast. Small numbers also winter regularly in coastal California.

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Migration

More migratory than Saltmarsh Sparrow, leaving its nesting range completely in fall. Those from the interior may migrate to either the southern Atlantic Coast or the Gulf Coast. Small numbers also winter regularly in coastal California.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Song an unmusical, dry, staticky tschyyy-drrr, second part lower, often likened to water hitting a hot skillet. Call a dry, hard stik.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.

How climate change could affect this bird's range

In the broadest and most detailed study of its kind, Audubon scientists have used hundreds of thousands of citizen-science observations and sophisticated climate models to predict how birds in the U.S. and Canada will react to climate change.

Learn more

Read more: climate.audubon.org
Perching Birds

Nelson's Sparrow

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season.

More on reading these maps.

Each map is a visual guide to where a particular bird species may find the climate conditions it needs to survive in the future. We call this the bird’s “climatic range.”

The colors indicate the season in which the bird may find suitable conditions— blue for winter, yellow for summer (breeding), and green for where they overlap (indicating their presence year-round).

The darker the shaded area, the more likely it is the bird species will find suitable climate conditions to survive there.

The outline of the approximate current range for each season remains fixed in each frame, allowing you to compare how the range will expand, contract, or shift in the future.

The first frame of the animation shows where the bird can find a suitable climate today (based on data from 2000). The next three frames predict where this bird’s suitable climate may shift in the future—one frame each for 2020, 2050, and 2080.

You can play or pause the animation with the orange button in the lower left, or select an individual frame to study by clicking on its year.

The darker the color, the more favorable the climate conditions are for survival. The outlined areas represent approximate current range for each season. More on reading these maps.
Winter
Summer

Winter Range
Summer Range
Both Seasons
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