At a Glance
The reddish cap might suggest a Chipping Sparrow, but this bird of the marshes is bigger and bulkier, a solitary skulker in dense cover. Swamp Sparrows are common in summer in cattail marshes and brushy swamps across the Northeast, Midwest, and much of Canada. In winter they live not only in marshes but also in thickets and weedy fields away from water. Although they often stay out of sight, they may be detected by their sharp callnotes, and they will come up to investigate a birder who makes loud 'squeaking' sounds next to the marsh.
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
Coasts and Shorelines, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Freshwater Wetlands, Lakes, Ponds, and Rivers, Saltwater Wetlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Flitter, Running
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Most of those breeding in western Canada probably move eastward in fall to winter in the Southeast; however, small numbers occur widely in the West in winter.
5" (13 cm). Looks rather dark overall, usually with bright chestnut on wings and back. Gray face contrasts with white throat and reddish cap in summer; crown is much duller in winter, brown with pale central stripe.
About the size of a Robin, About the size of a Sparrow
Black, Brown, Gray, Red, Tan, White
Notched, Rounded, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
Sweet, musical trill, all on one note.
Fresh marshes with tussocks, bushes, or cattails; sedgy swamps. Breeds mostly in freshwater marshes with good growth of sedges, grass, or cattails, often with thickets of alder or willow; sometimes in swampy thickets around ponds and rivers. Also breeds locally in salt marshes on middle Atlantic Coast. During migration and winter found mainly in marshes, but also in streamside thickets, rank weedy fields.
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4-5, sometimes 3-6. Pale green to greenish white, heavily marked with reddish brown. Incubation is by female only, probably about 12-13 days. Male may feed female on the nest during incubation.
Both parents bring food to the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-13 days after hatching. Often 2 broods per year.
Forages mostly on the ground, especially on wet mud near the water's edge, and sometimes feeds while wading in very shallow water. Also does some foraging up in marsh vegetation.
Mostly insects and seeds. Feeds heavily on insects, perhaps more so than related sparrows, especially in summer. Diet includes many beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers, crickets, ants, and many others, as well as other arthropods. Also eats many seeds, especially in fall and winter, including those of grasses, weeds, and sedges.
To defend nesting territory, male sings from a raised perch, such as the top of a cattail or a shrub in the marsh. May sing by day or night. Nest: Placed in marsh vegetation such as cattails, sedge tussocks, or bushes, often directly above the water, up to 5' high; perhaps sometimes on the ground. Nest (probably built by female only) often has bulky foundation of coarse grass and other marsh plants, with inner cup of fine grass. Dead cattail blades or other leaves often arch over the nest, so that the birds must enter from the side.
Undoubtedly has declined with loss of marsh habitat, but still widespread and common. Localized salt-marsh race on Atlantic Coast could be vulnerable to habitat loss.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Swamp Sparrow. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Swamp 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.