Priority Bird
Conservation status Undoubtedly has declined in many regions with loss of coastal marsh habitat.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Coastal marshes. Found mostly in salt marshes with sedges, rushes, cordgrass, saltgrass, and other typical plants; sometimes in fresh marshes or fields adjacent to coast.
A bird of the coast, named for the spiky tips on its tail feathers (which it shares with several related kinds of sparrows). Saltmarsh Sparrows have an unusual mating system for a songbird, with males simply roving about looking for females rather than defending a nesting territory.

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


Nestlings are fed by female alone. Young leave nest about 8-11 days after hatching, may remain with female for another 2-3 weeks. Often 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 (including grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars, ants, wasps, others), 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 where standing plants are mixed with much dead grass remaining from preceding seasons. Nests usually placed just above normal high tide mark; many nests are destroyed by extreme tides. 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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Migrates at night, traveling along coastline. Apparently moves only short distances, with most wintering along southern Atlantic Coast, and many present through the winter in much of the breeding range.

  • 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

Complex song, but very quiet, with a wheezy or whispered quality Syllables of complex song include trills and accented syllables, with each syllable differing from those preceding and following. Only the male sings. Male can continue with a single uninterrupted song from one perch, through a short flight, through another perch.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
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