Conservation status 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.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat 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.
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.

Feeding Behavior

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.


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. Young: Both parents bring food to the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-13 days after hatching. Often 2 broods per year.


Both parents bring food to the nestlings. Young leave the nest about 10-13 days after hatching. Often 2 broods per year.


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.

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

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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.

  • 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

Sweet, musical trill, all on one note.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.