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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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

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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

See a fully interactive migration map for this species on the Bird Migration Explorer.

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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.
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How Climate Change Will Reshape the Range of the Nelson's Sparrow

Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect this bird’s range in the future.

Zoom in to see how this species’s current range will shift, expand, and contract under increased global temperatures.

Climate Threats Near You

Climate threats facing the Nelson's Sparrow

Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.