At a Glance
One of the last birds new to science to be found in North America, the Rufous-winged Sparrow was discovered in 1872 at Tucson. It was common there into the 1880s, but then disappeared for half a century! Since the 1930s it has gradually increased again in southern Arizona, but it is still uncommon and local, found in desert areas with good grass cover. Nesting mainly after the summer rains begin, it may be heard singing in the desert in late summer.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
New World Sparrows, Perching Birds
Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Mostly a permanent resident. A few may wander short distances away from breeding areas in fall and winter.
5-5 1/2" (13-14 cm). Rusty crown stripes, dark eye-line. Two short, dark whisker marks are distinctive. Rufous on wing is hard to see. Chipping Sparrow is smaller, less secretive, lacks double whisker.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Red, Tan, White
Songs and Calls
Characteristic call is a sharp seep; song is variable but always ends in a trill of rapid chips.
Falling, Flat, Rising
Chirp/Chip, Hi, Trill, Whistle
Tall desert grass, thorn brush. Quite local in our area, favoring areas with good growth of grass and numerous shrubs, especially mesquite and desert hackberry. Avoids areas that have been heavily grazed, but may occur in suburban areas where houses are scattered and good vegetation remains.
Sign up for Audubon's newsletter to learn more about birds like the Rufous-winged Sparrow
Usually 4, sometimes 2-3. A century ago, may have typically laid clutches of 4-5 in Arizona. Eggs pale bluish white, unmarked. Incubation is apparently by female only, length of incubation period not well known.
Both parents feed the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 8-9 days after hatching. 1 brood per year, or 2 in years with good rains.
Forages mostly while hopping about on the ground. Also forages up in low bushes, especially in summer. Picks up items from ground or from stems of plants, and occasionally makes short flights to catch insects in mid-air. Usually forages in pairs or family groups, sometimes loosely associated with Black-throated Sparrows.
Mostly insects and seeds. Summer diet is mostly insects, especially caterpillars and grasshoppers, also many other insects and some spiders. Eats more seeds at other seasons, especially those of grasses and weeds, and winter diet may be almost entirely seeds.
Members of a pair may remain together on territory at all seasons. Nesting in Arizona is usually in late summer, after beginning of rainy season; in wet years, may also nest in spring. Male defends nesting territory by singing from a raised perch. Nest site is usually in low shrub or cactus, from a few inches to 7' above the ground; often placed in desert hackberry or mesquite, sometimes in cholla or prickly pear cactus. Nest (probably built by female only) is a deep open cup made of dry weeds, grass, and small twigs, lined with fine grass and often with animal hair.
Far less numerous than it was originally, but still locally common in areas where good grass cover remains. In its Mexican range, vulnerable to loss of habitat through overgrazing.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Rufous-winged Sparrow. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Rufous-winged 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.