Vancouver Avian Research Centre

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Species: Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia


This medium sized, fairly bulky sparrow is common and widespread in open, shrubby or wet areas and is quite at home in an urban setting. It can often be seen hopping around in the grass at the edges of lawns and field margins and it is one of the first species that you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, brushy or marshy habitat. This species is named after its melodious song and the male will usually find a low perch, such as the top of a bush or a small tree, from which to sing. These sparrows are usually solitary, but they may form loose groups in the fall.


General: Medium sized sparrow with a short, stout bill, a long, rounded tail and short, broad wings. Adults measure approximately 15cm in length and weigh about 20g.

Adult: Male and female are similar, although males are slightly larger. Wings and breast are coarsely streaked in brown and grey. The wings and tail are a rufous brown. The streaking on the breast tends to converge in a central spot. The underbelly is a lighter buffy brown. The supercilium is grey and narrow, not widening beyond the eye.

Juvenile: Similar to adult.

Similar species: Lincoln’s sparrow, M. lincolnii, has a smaller bill and a shorter, greyer tail. The grey supercilium is broader, widening beyond the eye and the streaks are crisper and darker on the wings, back, flanks and breast. The savannah sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis, has a smaller, pinkish bill and a relatively short, notched tail. Streaking is finer and more crisp. On the head, the lores is yellow, there is strong, dark moustache and a pale median crown stripe.

Behaviour: Song sparrows forage on the ground, in shrubs and in very shallow water. They can be seen flitting and hopping through dense, low vegetation. Flights are short and are characterised by a downward pumping of the tail. They tend to stay low in vegetation and forage secretively. However, males sing from exposed perches, such as the tops of shrubs or small trees.

Habitat: Song sparrows are found in a variety of open habitats, including brushy areas, agricultural areas, overgrown pastures, parkland, hedgerows and gardens. They are often found near water and can be found at forest edges and in deciduous or mixed woodlands.

Information: Song sparrows are year round residents and can be found throughout most of North America. They show extensive regional variation and have the most numerous subspecies in North America, with 52 varieties described. Song sparrows of the Pacific Northwest tend to be darker and more streaked, while those of the desert southwest tend to be lighter and paler overall. Despite this large variation in colouration, genetic differences are small. A song sparrow’s diet consists mainly of seeds and fruit, supplemented by a variety of insects and other invertebrates in the summer. Song sparrows are usually monogamous and generally lay one clutch of 1-6 eggs per year. Male song sparrows attract a mate and defend its territory by singing. The song is melodious, crisp and clear, consisting of trills and clear notes, usually starting with several short notes, followed by one long trill in the middle of the song. Males can learn up to 20 different tunes and hundreds of variations of each tune. Females are attracted to males that show the ability to learn many different variants of their song from their neighbours. Females are also able to distinguish the songs of their mate from other males and the songs of neighbouring birds from those from more distant areas. A female shows a distinct preference for the song of her mate, followed by the song of neighbours. She is least interested in songs sung by strangers in the area.

Conservation Status:

Least Concern The song sparrow is widespread and common throughout North America. They are vulnerable to predation cats, hawks and owls and are often the victim of the brown-headed cowbird, although this does not seem to have any significant effect on their own reproductive success.
Capture Rates

The Song Sparrow is a year round resident of Colony Farm. Capture rates (2010-2012; standardized as birds captured per 100 net hours) peak during winter months when non-breeding birds forage throughout the banding area.

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