Photo: Elizabeth Feucht/Great Backyard Bird Count Participant

Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia

Very widespread in North America, this melodious sparrow is among the most familiar birds in some areas, such as the Northeast and Midwest. At times it is rather skulking in behavior, hiding in the thickets, seen only when it flies from bush to bush with a typical pumping motion of its tail. Usually, however, sheer numbers make it conspicuous. Song Sparrows vary in appearance over their wide range, from large dark birds on the Aleutians to small pale ones in the desert Southwest.
Conservation status Some local populations are vulnerable to loss of habitat, especially those in coastal marshes, but species as a whole is still widespread and abundant.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Thickets, brush, marshes, roadsides, gardens. Habitat varies over its wide range. In most areas, found in brushy fields, streamsides, shrubby marsh edges, woodland edges, hedgerows, well-vegetated gardens. Some coastal populations live in salt marshes. Nests in dense streamside brush in southwestern deserts, and in any kind of dense low cover on Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
Very widespread in North America, this melodious sparrow is among the most familiar birds in some areas, such as the Northeast and Midwest. At times it is rather skulking in behavior, hiding in the thickets, seen only when it flies from bush to bush with a typical pumping motion of its tail. Usually, however, sheer numbers make it conspicuous. Song Sparrows vary in appearance over their wide range, from large dark birds on the Aleutians to small pale ones in the desert Southwest.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, California
  • adult, Northwestern
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult, Eastern
  • juvenile, Eastern
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult, Northwestern
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly on the ground, sometimes scratching in the soil to turn up items. Also sometimes forages in very shallow water (fractions of an inch deep) and up in shrubs and trees. Will come to bird feeders placed close to good cover.


Eggs

Typically 4, often 3-5, rarely 2-6. Pale greenish white, heavily spotted with reddish brown. Incubation is apparently by female only, about 12-14 days. Young: Both parents feed the nestlings. Young normally leave the nest about 10-12 days after hatching, remain with their parents about another 3 weeks.


Young

Both parents feed the nestlings. Young normally leave the nest about 10-12 days after hatching, remain with their parents about another 3 weeks.

Diet

Mostly insects and seeds. Eats many insects, especially in summer, including beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, ants, wasps, and many others, also spiders. Feeds heavily on seeds, especially in winter, mainly those of grasses and weeds. Birds in coastal marshes and on islands also feed on small crustaceans and mollusks, perhaps rarely on small fish.


Nesting

Males often defend only small nesting territories, so high densities of Song Sparrows may be present in good habitat. In courtship, male may chase female; may perform fluttering flight among the bushes with neck outstretched and head held high. Nest site varies, usually on ground under clump of grass or shrub, or less than 4' above the ground, sometimes up to 10' or higher. Raised sites may be in shrubs, low trees, or marsh vegetation, often above water. Rarely nests in cavities in trees. Nest (built mostly or entirely by female) is an open cup of weeds, grass, leaves, strips of bark, lined with fine grass, rootlets, animal hair.

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
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Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Migration

Present all year in many parts of range, but birds from northern interior move south to southern United States or extreme northern Mexico in winter.

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Migration

Present all year in many parts of range, but birds from northern interior move south to southern United States or extreme northern Mexico in winter.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Song consists of 3 short notes followed by a varied trill, sometimes interpreted as Madge-Madge-Madge, put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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