chapter from the electronic book: Life
Histories of Familiar North American Birds
Melospiza melodia [Eastern
Contributed by Val Nolan, Jr.
[Published in 1968:
Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237
(Part 3): 1491-1512]
On any list of North American birds selected for their general
familiarity, the song sparrow would have few peers. Although
relatively small and not very conspicuously marked, this species
combines a rediness to dwell near humans and a persistent and
attractive song with a breeding range extending from Mexico to the
outer Aleutians and from the islands off the Atlantic coast to
those off the coast of the Pacific. Further, the territories of
the males are small and the suitable habitats extensive, with the
result that the song sparrow is abundant in most of its range. Add
to the foregoing the fact that these sparrows are readily trapped,
and it is not surprising that some populations have been studied
in meticulous detail.
Not only is the song sparrow one of our best-known birds; it is
also our most variable, with 31 subspecies recognized as occuring
within the territory covered by the A.O.U. Check-List (1957) and 3
additional subspecies in Mexico (Friedmann, et al., 1957).***
The breeding song sparrow of eastern Canada and of the United
States west to the Appalachians displays the typical preference of
this species for moist ground and for a low, irregular, dense
plant configuration considerably exposed to the sun. "No land
bird seems more fond of water," writes E. H. Forbush (1929).
Everywhere it is "primarily a bird of the lower lands. .
." (Knight, 1908), along the banks of streams, the brushy
shores of ponds, and in the shrubby wet meadows or cattail swamps.
Even on the central Atlantic coast, where the race atlantica
replaces the present subspecies on the beaches, melodia
seems to be the song sparrow found back in the thickets (Stone,
1937), and Dexter (1944) has reported a nest of this race in a
salt marsh on a tidal inlet at Gloucester, Mass. But these lowland
situations are only a first preference, for the bird is tolerant
of a wide range of conditions. It is often found in brushy fence
rows and along country roads; and it sometimes breeds even in
rocky wooded clearings in Maine, in small wooded openings only a
few rods in diameter in New York (Eaton, 1914), and in
second-growth woodland in Pennsylvania (Todd, 1940). Gardens and
yards offer the song sparrow sunny, bushy, moist cover, and the
bird is a common nesting species in suburbs and small towns. On
Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, the highest point in the eastern
half of the United States, Burleigh (1941) observed individuals of
the race euphonia as high as 6,300 feet above sea level
during the summer.
Spring.--Although a few song
sparrows winter far north, most withdraw from that part of the
range in Canada and northern New England. M. M. Nice (1933) has
cited the evidence, from banding records, that some individuals of
this subspecies are resident "in regions where most of their
kind are migratory." Hervey Brackbill (1953) has found that
the breeding population of Maryland contains both migratory and
sedentary individuals. In the Hudson River valley and around New
York City the species is a common winter resident. The arrival of
migrants, and the return to their breeding territories of birds
that have wintered, normally begins in the latter half of February
in the southern part of the range, while the first spring arrivals
appear in Maine in mid- and late March and in Canada in March and
early April. In Maine migration continues into early May (Palmer,
Carl H. Helms (1959) weighed song sparrows captured in
Massachusetts just before and just after a large night migration
in April. Birds weighed before the flight averaged 1.41 grams
heavier than those that arrived as a result of the movement. These
post-flight individuals were noticeably less fat. The song sparrow
sings even on cold clear mornings of late winter, and its voice is
a characteristic sound of early spring. Aretas A. Saunders (1947)
reports singing in Connecticut when the temperature was -2o
Territory.--Territory appears to
be established principally or entirely by the male. E. H. Forbush
(1929) has described behavior that probably includes elements both
of territorial defense and of courtship or pair formation:
"There is considerable rivalry among the males, but their
contests appear to be mainly competitions in song and flight. They
chase the females and each other about through the air with
fluttering wings, often sailing and singing. Their pursuit seems
not to be in earnest, as, notwithstanding the rapid movement of
their wings, their progress is slow. Now and then a bird pauses in
his flight to sing, supported for an instant on his widespread
pinions. Flight-songs also carry them up into the air.
Occasionally a battle ensues between two rival males, and
sometimes they even roll and tumble in the dust with locked bills
and beating wings." In the section on courtship is a
description of behavior that probably has territorial functions as
well. The song sparrow's persistent songs, six to eight per minute
at dawn in spring (Forbush, 1929), are, of course, associated with
the maintenance of territory.
The size of the individual territory in favorable habitat is
less than an acre. Robert E. Stewart and Chandler S. Robbins
(1958) give an interesting series of data on the population
density of breeding song sparrows in Maryland. (Population
densities provide a basis for estimating only maximum territory
size, for it does not follow that all the area censused actually
fell within the boundaries claimed by the males.) In 19.2 acres of
" 'shrubby field with stream-bordered trees' " were 21
territorial males; in 9.5 acres of " 'open hemlock-spruce
bog' (brush-meadow stage. . .)" were 3 males; and in 20.5
acres of " 'moderately sprayed apple orchard with
infrequently mowed ground cover. . .' ") were 4.5 territorial
Courtship.--Witmer Stone (1937)
writes as follows of his observations on Cape May: "In late
March and April the air seems simply filled with Song Sparrow song
and at this time we see male birds flying from bush to bush with
neck stretched out, head and tail held high, and wings vibrating
rapidly. This seems to be a part of the courtship display and as
soon as the bird alights it bursts into song. On March 21, 1925,
and April 2, 1914, I have noted this performance and the birds
were evidently paired. . . ." This behavior probably was
associated also with territory defense. To the account from
Forbush quoted in connection with territory may be added the same
author's statement that song sparrows "spend much time in the
pleasant pastime of courtship. The females seem to be modest and
coy." The duration of the periods of pair formation and
between pair formation and nesting seem not to have been recorded.
A comparison of the dates given for the height of the return of
spring migrants and for the beginning of general nesting in a
given locality suggests that a month or more often elapses in
these "prenuptial" and "preliminary" periods
The same males and females have been found mated to each other
in successive years (Hamill, 1926; Higgins, 1926).
Nesting.--Building is carried on
principally by the female, but Ora W. Knight (1908) once saw a
male apparently assisting his mate. He was "more inclined to
shirk his share, picking up material, dropping it and picking it
up again, singing meanwhile." During building, says Forbush
(1929), "the male devotes himself more to song than to
The duration of building is variously given, with 5 days the
lowest figure and 10 days a commonly accepted maximum. Weather is
known to influence the speed of building; and it may be supposed
that the time-advance of the season, the number of nesting
attempts already made, and the presence or absence of an earlier
brood might all affect the female's building behavior. As
mentioned below, females of the race melodia commonly raise
three broods in a season and sometimes deposit the eggs for a
later brood in a previously successful nest. Andrew J. Berger
(1951) found five nests built in one season by the same female of
the subspecies euphonia; not all succeeded.
The heights of nests range from ground level to at least 12
feet high. Most nests are placed on the ground, usually concealed
under a tuft of grass, a bush, or a brush pile; and elevated
structures are rare or absent early in the season. Eaton (1914)
reports that 99 percent of the nests in New York are on the
ground, but most writers use words suggesting only that something
over half are located there. Elevated nests are "at a height
of generally not over two or three feet" (Knight, 1908), but
numerous references to somewhat higher sites can be found.
Locations over water are not uncommon.
Plants in which nests are placed are grasses, sedges, cattails,
a great assortment of bushes and shrubs, and, more rarely, trees
of many species. Nests are occasionally built in cavities. Hollows
in old apple trees are apparently the commonest such locations
(Knight, 1908; Todd, 1940; Eaton, 1914); but hollow logs and
rails, unoccupied buildings such as woodsheds, and even nest boxes
(Palmer, 1949) have been resorted to. The materials used for the
outer, bulky part of the nest, as opposed to the lining, are most
commonly leaves, strips of plant bark, and weed and grass stems.
The lining is of fine grasses, rootlets, and horse or other animal
hair. W. E. C. Todd (1940) states that nests "when above the
ground. . .are often quite bulky." Knight reports the
dimensions of one nest placed on the ground: the diameter of the
cavity was 2 1/2 inches, while the overall diameter varied between
5 and 9 inches; the cavity depth was 1 1/2 inches, the overall
depth 4 1/2 inches.
Eggs.--The statements in this
paragraph are applicable to the song sparrow without regard to
race. The female lays from 3 to 6 eggs. They are slightly glossy
and range from ovate to short ovate. The ground color of freshly
laid eggs is "pale Niagara green" but this fades upon
exposure to a greenish-white. Most eggs are very heavily speckled,
spotted, or blotched with reddish browns such as "Verona
brown," "russet," "cinnamon brown," or
"Brussels brown." Some eggs have undermarkings of
"pale neutral grey." The spottings generally are more or
less evenly distributed over the entire surface, sometimes
obscuring the ground color and making it appear to be a light
buffy brown. They vary considerably both in shape, size, and
intensity. The measurements of 400 eggs average 20.4 by 15.6
millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 25.9
by 17.8, 24.5 by 18.3, 16.9 by 15.4, and 19.6 by 12.8
Turning to the race melodia, the measurements of 50 eggs
average 19.5 by 15.1 millimeters; the eggs showing the four
extremes measure 21.9 by 14.5, 20.1 by 16.8, 17.8
by 14.2, and 18.0 by 14.0 millimeters.
states that incubation is "by both sexes, female
chiefly" and that "some males assist the females a
little. . . ." However, there is no evidence that males have
an incubation patch, without which they would be ill-equipped to
supply heat to the eggs. Mrs. Nice (1937) found males of the race euphonia
lack this patch, and her unequivocal statement that only the
female euphonia incubates casts doubt on Forbush's
contention. The role of the male during incubation is probably
confined to the defense of territory and nest.
Incubation seems to start sometime not many hours from the
laying of the last egg of the set, if this inference may be drawn
from the failure of observers to report differences in development
in the young of a brood. In euphonia Mrs. Nice observed
that most often a clutch hatched over a 2-day span, indicating
that incubation had begun before all eggs were laid.
The incubation period is said by Knight and Forbush to be from
10 to 14 days, but it is doubtful if accurate measurements of the
period, as it is presently defined, would be less than 12 days, as
in euphonia (Nice, 1937). W. E. Schantz (1937) watched a
female euphonia incubate three eggs (laid July 10 - 12) for
24 days; the eggs failed to hatch.
Young.--Most of our knowledge of the
development of the behavior of nestling song sparrows comes from
Mrs. Nice's work, devoted chiefly to euphonia. The
following paragraph is based on her report (1943). The development
of the plumage is described below under the heading Plumage.
Newly hatched song sparrows can grasp, gape, swallow, defecate,
and change location "by means of uncoordinated wrigglings."
A feeding note has been heard in 2-day-old birds. The eyes begin
to open at age 3 or 4 days. Incipient preening motions appear at
age 5 days, as do, rarely, cowering and the ability to utter a
location call. At age 7 days many motor coordinations are
acquired, and henceforth the bird "is capable of leaving the
nest." Among the behaviorisms of the 7-day-old are cowering,
stretching of the wings, head-scratching, yawning, and climbing to
the nest rim. Birds 8 and 9 days old acquire new types of
wing-stretching, engage in wing-fluttering and -fanning, and
body-shaking, and utter new feeding notes.
Both parents feed the nestlings, chiefly on "insects,
worms, beetles, grubs, flies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and
similar insects" (Knight, 1908). The period in the nest
varies, its minimal limit being given as 7 days by Forbush (1929)
and its maximum as 14 days by most writers. Seven days undoubtedly
does not represent a natural, undisturbed nestling period, but is
probably the youngest age at which nestlings will leave the nest
when disturbed. Knight says that young leave ground nests earlier
than they do elevated nests, and that this early age is 10 days.
At this time they are still unable to fly, and newly fledged birds
remain hidden in plant cover. Mrs. Nice (1937) states that young euphonia
"when. . .about 17 days old. . .are able to fly and come out
Dependence on the parents continues until after the
post-juvenal molt (Todd, 1940). The parental bond may be assumed
to be severed at the age of about 28 to 30 days as in euphonia
As in other species, juvenile song sparrows occasionally engage
in some of the behavior of nest building (Hoyt, 1961).
As second and third broods are produced regularly, and fourth
broods probably occasionally, as far north as Massachusetts, the
matter of timing successive families is of interest. "When
the young of the first brood are able to fly, the female
immediately begins to deposit eggs for the second brood, often in
the same nest, leaving the male to care for the first, and he
attends them usually until the young of the second brood have
hatched, when he leaves them to help feed and care for the younger
brood (Forbush, 1929)."
Plumages.--In the following
description of the plumages and molts, material involving both melodia
and euphonia has been used. The sexes are identical in
their molts and practically identical in their plumages. Females
average a little later than males in date of molt. Minor sexual
differences in plumage will be mentioned.
Natal down, described as both sepia-brown in color (Dwight,
1900) and black (Nice, 1943) is present at hatching. Mrs. Nice
(1943) writes that this down "is prominent on the dorsal,
femoral and occipital regions and on the coverts. For the first
two days there is little change except in increased length of
down." The progress of the molt into the juvenal plumage is
described in detail by G. M. Sutton (1935), who writes:
. . .the nestling-stage of the juvenal plumage is. . .
notable for its dullness, the feathers of the loral, malar, and
superciliary regions being still for the most part in their
sheaths, and the tertials so short that their rich edgings are not
yet apparent. The streaking of the chest is quite sharp, but on
the sides it is, if anything, less marked than in later stages.
Male and female birds are apparently not distinguishable at this
age. The pectoral streaking is so much intensified because the
feathers lie close together and are partially sheathed, that the
actual width of the streaks is difficult to determine.
By the time the tail is an inch long the feathers of the
face are almost altogether unsheathed, the tertials and
secondaries are practically of full length, the pectoral plumage
is fully fluffed out, and the bird is, therefore, much more
colorful in appearance. At this stage males may, with a fair
degree of certainty, be distinguished from females by the heavy
streaking of the chest. Chapman. . . tells us that the
"breast blotch is wanting" in this plumage. While this
is no doubt to a considerable extent true, two individuals in a
series of eleven specimens at hand show a definite blotch and two
others exhibit a tendency toward convergence of streaks in the
middle of the chest.
Sutton considers that song sparrows have a rather definite and
complete juvenal plumage. "By the time the juvenal rectrices
are of full length the body plumage is comparatively complete with
all the feathers unsheathed and with no noticeable intrusion of
pin-feathers of some subsequent plumage." He says that
"specimens in juvenal feather may be taken during a long
period of the summer," but is cautious about concluding how
long the individual bird wears the plumage.
The foregoing is essentially an account of the molt, not the
plumage, of which Dwight (1900) gives a good description. The bird
"resembles Z. albicollis, but lacks chestnut
above" and is "paler on [the]crown and less streaked
below. Above, including sides of head, wood-brown or sepia broadly
striped on back, narrowly on crown, nape and rump with dull black,
the feathers centrally black with a narrow zone of walnut and
wood-brown and grayish edgings. Indistinct median crown and
superciliary stripes dull olive-gray with dusky shaft streaks.
Rictal and submalar streaks black; orbital ring buff. Wings dull
black with walnut edgings, the wing coverts and tertiaries buff
tipped. Tail olive- brown broadly edged with walnut and
indistinctly barred. Below, dull white washed with pale or
yellowish buff deepest on the throat and flanks and streaked on
sides of chin, throat, breast and sides with dull black. Feet and
bill pinkish flesh, becoming dusky with age, lower mandible
remaining partly flesh-color." Dwight believes this plumage
is worn several months; it fades considerably.
The first winter plumage is acquired, according to Dwight,
"by a partial, sometimes complete, postjuvenal moult"
beginning in some birds in mid-August, in others not until the
last of September. These latter will still show new feather growth
late in October or early in November, although "the whole
period of moult does not cover much more than two months in the
majority of cases." The molt "involves the body plumage
and the tail and very often, part at least, of the remiges. The
renewal of five or six outer primaries occurs in nearly all young
birds of this species and is very likely characteristic of the
first brood. . . . The secondaries are rarely found in moult, the
tertiaries, alulae and wing coverts regularly so. . . .
[Occasionally] the renewal of primaries, secondaries and even of
rectrices, might easily be overlooked as the new feathers are
nearly of the same pattern and color as the old and not in
contrast. . . ."
In appearance, the first winter plumage is like the previous
one, "but is whiter below and richer in chestnut streakings
above and below. The lateral crown stripes are distinct with black
streaks, the median and superciliary stripes distinctly
olive-gray. Below, white washed with pale vinaceous cinnamon on
sides of head, across jugulum and on sides, and streaked, except
on chin and mid-abdomen, with clove-brown bordered with chestnut,
the streaks becoming confluent at sides of chin and on mid-throat
forming three nearly black spots. Old and young become absolutely
indistinguishable in most cases, young birds with the wing edgings
perhaps a trifle duller and with a yellowish tinge." In this
plumage females are "apt to be more washed with brown or to
have a yellowish cast when compared with males" in the same
The first nuptial plumage is acquired, according to Dwight, by
wear, which is marked; "by the end of the breeding season the
birds are in tatters. The buff is lost and the streaking below
comes out in strong contrast on a white ground." The adult
winter plumage is "acquired by a complete postnuptial moult
beginning usually about the middle of August and completed before
the end of September. Old and young cannot be told apart with any
certainty, adults however with wing edgings that may perhaps
average darker and browner and the throat markings blacker."
The adult nuptial plumage is "acquired by wear as in the
young birds with the same results."
The following description of the adult plumage is by Robert
Adults (sexes alike):--Pileum brown (mummy brown to almost
burnt umber), narrowly streaked with black and divided by a narrow
median stripe of gray, more or less streaked or washed with brown;
scapulars and interscapulars black medially, producing streaks of
greater or less width, these margined laterally with brown (like
the color of the pileum), the edges of the rectrices, more or less
broadly, brownish gray; rump olive-grayish, more or less streaked
with brown (sometimes with blackish also); upper tail-coverts
browner than rump and more distinctly streaked; tail brown
(broccoli brown to russet brown), the middle pair of rectrices
with a narrow median stripe of dusky brown, the inner webs of the
other rectrices darker brown than outer webs; lesser wing-coverts
brown; middle coverts brown, margined terminally with pale
brownish gray, and marked with a more or less distinct median
streak or spot of dusky; greater coverts brown, margined
terminally with paler and marked with a broad median tear-shaped
(mostly concealed) space of blackish; tertials mostly blackish,
but outer webs chiefly brown, passing into a paler (sometimes pale
grayish or almost grayish white) hue terminally; rest of remiges
dusky, edged with paler or more grayish brown; edge of wing white;
a broad superciliary stripe of olive-gray, sometimes approaching
grayish white on the lower portion; loral, suborbital, and
auricular regions darker olive-grayish, the latter margined above
and below by narrow postocular and rictal stripes of brown, these
brown stripes sometimes narrowly streaked with black; a broad
malar stripe of dull white or pale buffy, margined below by a
conspicuous submalar stripe or triangular spot of black or mixed
brown and black; under parts white, the chest marked with
wedge-shaped streaks of black, more or less broadly edged with
rusty brown, these streaks more or less coalesced in the lower
central portion of the chest, or upper breast, forming a more or
less conspicuous irregular spot; sides and flanks streaked with
black and rusty brown, the ground color, especially on flanks,
more or less tinged with pale olive-grayish or buffy; under
tail-coverts white of pale buffy, more or less streaked with
brown; maxilla dusky brown, paler on tomia; mandible horn color;
iris brown; tarsi pale brown, toes darker.
Albinism occurs in song sparrows, and Root (1944) reports a
banded individual that acquired a considerable degree of whiteness
during a 28-day period in early autumn, presumably as the result
of a molt.
Food.--S. D. Judd (1901) has
described the diet of song sparrows without regard to race. For
the year, animal matter constitutes 34 percent of the total food,
the greatest amount being taken from May to August, when insects
represent about half the bird's food. Ground-, leaf-, and
clickbeetles, weevils, and other beetles rank first in number;
grasshoppers, locusts, larvae such as the cutworm and army-worm,
ants, wasps, ichneumon flies, bugs, leaf-hoppers, larvae and
imagos of horse-flies, etc., are also taken. The remaining
two-thirds of the diet is composed of seeds of crabgrass and
pigeon-grass, timothy, old-witch grass, barnyard grass,
panic-grasses, orchard and yard grasses; knotweeds, wild
sunflower, lamb's quarters, gromwell, purslane, amaranth,
dandelion, chickweed, dock, ragweed, sheep-sorrel and wood-sorrel;
a little grain, largely waste; and, before the seeds have ripened,
wild berries and fruits such as blackberries, strawberries,
blueberries, elderberries, and raspberries, wild cherries and
grapes, and woodbine berries. The species is very beneficial as a
destroyer of injurious insects and weed seeds. Judd says,
"Only 2 percent of the food consists of useful insects, while
18 percent is composed of injurious insects; grain, largely waste,
amounts to only 4 percent, while the seeds of various species of
weeds constitute 50 percent."
W. L. Dawson (1923), writing of song sparrows of no specified
race, says that a bird "sometimes seizes and devours small
Behavior when foraging reflects the seasonal dietary
preferences already described. Eaton (1914) states that in summer
song sparrows cease to feed largely on the ground and sometimes
forage for insects among foliage as high as 20 and 30 feet,
although usually among bushes and grass. These birds scratch the
ground by kicking simultaneously with both feet. Charles H. Blake
writes of watching a song sparrow catch winged termites as they
emerged from their subterranean colony in early June.
Behavior.--Song sparrows are
often furtive in manner, and Knight (1908) gives a good
description of the behavior of alarmed birds. He states that they
prefer to "work downward into the bushes with bobbing tail,
hopping along from twig to twig, or skulking through the
underbrush, grass and leaves. They do not fly, save from bush to
bush, unless closely pursued with evident intention to flush them
or do them harm." Witmer Stone (1937) speaks of "how
well adapted [song sparrows] are for a terrestrial life and how
rapidly they can run, mouse-like, through the grass."
Despite their sometimes secretive behavior, birds dwelling near
humans often develop considerable tameness. Forbush (1929) states
that they may be conditioned by feeding to come when called and
tells of one song sparrow that learned to associate the sound of a
bell with the fact that food was to be scattered and of another
that learned to peck at a window to be fed.
The behavior of females on the nest is often cryptic, according
to Knight (1908). Sometimes the bird sits until almost stepped on;
at other times, when the male gives the alarm, she slips off,
sneaks a few feet away, and then begins to call. Johnston (1957)
in long experience with the shrub-nesting race, samuelis,
saw only one case of rodent-like distraction display. Both adults
protest intrusions into the vicinity of the nest, and Forbush
(1929) describes the posture of nest defense as involving
"outspread wings and depressed tails." This threat, if
unsuccessful, may be replaced by attack. Birds as large as the
catbird and hairy woodpecker happening to approach the nest are
attacked, and Forbush mentions a successful attempt by a song
sparrow to drive five house sparrows from a feeding station.
Bathing, states Forbush, occurs "during the day whenever
opportunity offers" and, if there is water, "every night
after sunset." Puddles, including salt water along the shore,
are used; and the song sparrow is one of many species that bathe
in drops of water on grass and leaves by striking the foliage with
the wings and body and thus throwing water on the plumage.
Scratching of the head by song sparrows is "indirect,"
with the foot brought over the wing to reach the head, and Hailman
(1959) has observed song sparrows and other emberizines scratching
the head against perches.
Anting has often been noted in song sparrows; Whitaker (1957)
has summarized the details.
"Helping," i.e., the feeding of young both of other
song sparrows and of other species, has been noted several times
and summarized by Brackbill (1952) and Skutch (1961). Perhaps the
most surprising instance, reported by Brackbill, involved the
cooperative building and joint use of a nest by a pair of
cardinals and a pair of song sparrows. Both females incubated, the
cardinal sometimes sitting on the sparrow. The cardinal eggs
succeeded, and all four adults fed the nestlings. Forbush (1929)
describes an instance in which two females laid a total of eight
eggs in one nest; one of these birds had its own nest 30 feet away
but did not use it. The females took turns incubating, and all
eggs were said to have produced fledglings.
The flight speed of song sparrows has been measured by O. P.
Pearson (1961) as 15.9 miles per hour and possibly as much as 21
miles per hour.
Manwell and Herman (1935) found that individual song sparrows
displaced and released in spring as much as 1 1/2 miles returned
quickly to the point of capture; at an intermediate trapping
station on the presumed line of flight none were caught.
Body temperatures of 64 individuals of the race euphonia
averaged about 109.6o F.,
varying 10o F. within the sample
(Becker and Stack, 1944). There is considerable literature on song
sparrow weights; Mrs. K. B. Wetherbee (1934) gives many data. Mrs.
Nice (1935) lists an average weight of 21.3 grams for 267 adults.
LeRoy C. Stegeman (1955) reports weight fluctuation amounts at
times to 20 percent in 24 hours, with peak weights in the spring
recorded in the late morning and late afternoon.
Voice.--Male song sparrows sing
their variable repertoire not only during the breeding season but
at other times. Songs may be heard in much of the breeding range
during any month of the year (Saunders, 1947), and dawn singing on
clear, cold mornings in January and February is especially
noticeable. Regular singing in spring begins in Connecticut in
late February or in March (Saunders, 1947) and generally closes,
for a time, in the third week of August (Saunders, 1948a). There
follows a revival of song, beginning in Connecticut on the average
date of September 30 and continuing until November 21 (average).
Aretas A. Saunders, who is responsible for these dates, writes
(1948b): "This species is the most regular and dependable
fall singer of all our birds."
Forbush (1929) states that the birds sing "no matter how
very stormy the weather" and sometimes even "in the
darkness of night." Six to eight songs per minute is the
frequency during the dawn hours of the breeding period (Forbush),
with singing continuing, but less frequently, all day. Knight
(1908) reports that in summer in Maine most singing occurs during
the dawn and evening hours. Forbush says that occasionally molting
birds sing a whisper song.
When singing, the male mounts to a position typically between 7
and 15 feet from the ground (Eaton, 1914); trees, shrubs, fences
and boulders are among the song posts used. Singing has often been
observed in birds on the wing, and Forbush's description, quoted
under Territory, indicates that this form of behavior may
have become an element in some displays.
Female song sparrows have been known to sing, and Mrs. K.
B.Wetherbee (1935) has written of a female in Massachusetts that
sang "a clear series of whistled notes" from April to
Not only the vociferousness of the species but also the unusual
variability of the repertoires of the individual males are
responsible for an abundant descriptive literature. Further, the
use of electronic recording and analysis of songs has thrown light
on the extent to which song sparrow vocalizations are modifiable
as opposed to innate. For the present account, two authorities on
bird song are quoted. Aretas A. Saunders wrote Mr. Bent: "I
have 885 records of the song, no two of them alike. If we count
trills as single notes, the number of notes per song varies from 4
to 20, averaging about 11. The length of songs varies from 1.8 to
5.2 seconds, the average being 2.7. The pitch varies from D'' to
F''''. The pitch interval varies from 1 to 7 1/2 tones, the
average about 3 1/2 tones. Each individual song sparrow sings a
number of different songs. It commonly sings the same song over a
half a dozen times or so, and then takes up a different song. The
number of songs per individual varies from 6 to 24, the latter
being an unusual bird."
The same author writing elsewhere (1951b) goes into additional
detail and reports the following: Pitch varies from 1150 to 5450
vibrations, in notes audible to man, and pitch intervals are
similar to those in human music. There is little variation in
intensity. "Quality is usually sweet and musical. . . .
Consonant sounds are not very noticeable. . . . The song has three
parts: strongly rhythmic introductory notes, a central trill, and
a final series of rather irregular and indefinite notes. . . .
Songs are of five types. . .[differing] primarily in the position
and relative pitches of the introductory notes and the
trill." Donald J. Borror (1961), who analyzed 889 tape
recordings of songs from 113 different individual song sparrows of
the races melodia and euphonia, writes:
The songs of this sparrow consist of a series of different
phrases (mostly 1- to 4-noted), and usually a trill; many of the
notes are buzzy. . . . A given bird has a vocabulary of a large
number of notes and phrases, and these are variously combined to
produce up to a dozen or more different song patterns; the
different patterns of a given bird are often quite different. The
songs of a given pattern may vary. . . .
Song Sparrow songs are of two general types, those beginning
with two to four (rarely one or five) similar and equally spaced
phrases, and those beginning with four to twenty similar phrases
that increase in tempo. . . .Songs of the first type were much
more common, making up 83.8 percent of the Ohio [euphonia]
patterns and 86.7 percent of the Maine [melodia] patterns.
. . .
A Song Sparrow apparently has an inborn tendency to sing
songs of two general types, but it learns its phrases by listening
to other, nearby Song Sparrows. As a result, the songs of
different birds in a local population contain similar notes and
phrases (but usually arranged differently), while the songs of
birds in separated populations contain different phrases. The
farther away two populations are, the less likely they are to use
similar phrases in their songs.
In a later, very detailed analysis of variation in the songs of
Maine song sparrows, Borror (1965) found 544 song patterns
represented in 7,212 tape-recorded songs of 120 birds.
A description of autumnal song by Forbush (1929) probably is
applicable not to adults but only to birds of the year: "Most
of the singing [in fall] is quite different, ranging from a low
connected warble to a song resembling that of the Purple Finch,
and (rarely) one like that of the Vesper Sparrow. There is a
particularly low, sweet melancholy warble uttered just before the
bird departs for the south." Formless, continuous warbling of
the kind described is commonly a stage in the ontogeny of song in
passerines (Lanyon, 1960).
Call notes are described as "tchenk," "tchip,"
"tchunk," "chip," "tcheek,"
"chuck." Forbush also mentions a note "sst";
a similar note given by California races is regarded by Dawson
(1923) as functioning as a flocking or recognition call.
Field marks.--A medium-sized
sparrow, the song sparrow is best recognized by the heavily
streaked breast, on which the streaks are "confluent into a large
central spot" (Peterson, 1947). In flight which is
usually for short distances between perches or into cover, the
bird is distinguished by its manner of pumping its rather long,
rounded tail up and down. Witmer Stone (1937) describes this
flight graphically as " 'brokenbacked'. . .as if the tail
were hinged at the base."
Banding.--The longevity record for
banded song sparrows appears to be about 8 or 9 years. Mrs. Nice
reports a male that was at least 7 1/2 and possibly 9 1/2 years
old at death. A song sparrow Mrs. K. C. Harding (1943) banded
April 27, 1936, at Cohasset, Mass., and recaptured there on April
5, 1943, was in at least its 8th year.
Recaptures and recoveries at points other than the original
banding station have been reported with some frequency in the
journal Bird-Banding. Some of the most interesting of these
follow: The number of such "recoveries" and
"foreign retraps" from a total of 3,614 song sparrows
banded in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, was 12 (Middleton,
1956); from 6,109 banded in Groton, Mass., 7 (Wharton, 1953); from
over 1,200 banded on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, 1 (Broun, 1933).
Some of the Pennsylvania birds were caught in Georgia, North
Carolina, Maryland, and New Jersey. The Groton, Mass., birds were
caught in Arkansas, South Carolina, North Carolina, Nova Scotia,
and New Brunswick. The Cape Cod bird was caught in South Carolina.
May Thacher Cooke (1943) reports a bird banded in Massachusetts
and captured in Newfoundland. Wendell P. Smith (1942) caught a
bird in Vermont in April, and it was recaptured 90 miles southward
in New Hampshire in June of the same year, an interesting case of
reversal in the direction of migratory movement.
Enemies.--Perhaps the most
interesting and surely the most well documented hazard in the song
sparrow's environment is exposure to the parasitic brown-headed
cowbird and bronze cowbird. Herbert Friedmann's latest report
(1963) on the cowbirds states that the song sparrow (all races)
shares with the yellow warbler the claim to being the most
frequently reported host of M. ater. Friedmann's summary of
the relations between all races of the song sparrow and the
brown-headed cowbird is quoted substantially in full:
The song sparrow is one of the most frequent, if not the
most frequent, victims of the brown-headed cowbird. Since the
former is sympatric with the latter throughout the entire breeding
range of the parasite, it is parasitized probably more often and
over a greater area than any other bird. The total number of
records is very great. After accumulating over 900, I stopped
noting them except for records of special interest. The data came
from every province of Canada and every state of the United States
included in the breeding ranges of both birds. All three races of
the parasite are involved, and no less than 17 races of the song
sparrow: melodia, atlantica, euphonia, juddi,
montana, inexpectata, merrilli, fisherella,
morphna, cleonensis, gouldii, samuelis,
pusillula, heermanni, cooperi, fallax,
and saltonis. So far, none of the purely Mexican races have
been reported as fosterers of the cowbird, but this fact is
probably due more to a lack of human observation than to any
actual immunity of the bird to cowbird parasitism.
There is no need to detail actual instances for the various
races of the song sparrow since such cases have already been given
in my earlier summaries [Friedmann, 1929, 1934, 1938, 1943, 1949].
However a few additional records of infrequently reported races of
the host species should be mentioned. . .[viz. cleonensis, fallax,
morphna, saltonis, and inexpectata].
In recent years, not only many hundreds of additional cases,
but also much more quantitative data on the host-parasite
relations have become available. Hicks (1934) found that 135 out
of 398 nests (34 percent) of this sparrow were parasitized in
Ohio. Nice (1937a, 1937b), also in Ohio, reported that 98 out of
223 nests (43.9 percent) contained eggs or young of the cowbird
(the annual percentage varied from 24.6 to 77.7 percent).
Sixty-six unparasitized nests raised an average of 3.4 song
sparrows, whereas 28 successful but parasitized broods averaged
only 2.4 song sparrows, indicating that each cowbird was reared at
the expense of one song sparrow. In one instance Nice found that a
pair of song sparrows raised a young cowbird together with five of
their own young. Apparently here no loss of sparrows was involved.
In another paper, Nice (1936) noted that, in all the song sparrow
nests which she had watched during a period of five years, adult
cowbirds removed 5.7 percent of the song sparrow eggs and nestling
cowbirds crushed or starved 3.5 percent of the young sparrows. The
cowbird eggs did not succeed as well as those of the host; only
30.7 percent of the former, but 35.8 percent of the latter,
reached fledgling stage. In 1930 - 31, there was one female
cowbird to about 11.5 pairs of suitable hosts, but in 1934 - 35
there was one to 8.6 pairs of suitable victims.
Of all song sparrow nests parasitized, Nice reported that 70
percent held a single cowbird egg each, 27 percent held 2 each,
and 3 percent held 3 each. In the area of the study--near
Columbus, Ohio--the song sparrow was the most important host of
the paeasite [sic.]. Norris (1947) noted that 11 out of 27 nests
(40.7 percent) in Pennsylvania were parasitized, and Berger (1951)
recorded 37 out of 59 nests found in Michigan (62.7 percent). In
the Detroit area, as reported by the Detroit Audubon Society
(1956), the average frequency of parasitism of the song sparrow
was 40.1 percent of all the nests found. . . .
One is drawn toward attempting an over-all estimate of the
frequency with which the song sparrow is victimized, but to do so
with any feeling of accuracy is difficult because the incidence of
parasitism appears to vary geographically (or, at least, the
frequency with which it is reported varies). From this it follows
that the over-all percentage depends on how many geographically
different areal data are used in the estimation. [With one group
of studies of the eastern United States], we come up with a total
of 323 parasitized nests out of 804 nests observed, or a little
over 40 percent. On the other hand, in southern Quebec (Terrill,
1961, p. 11), out of 486 nests observed, only 62, or 12.7 percent,
were parasitized. If we put all these studies together, we get a
total of 382 out of 1,285 nests victimized, or 29 percent. This
figure becomes yet smaller when we attempt to include data from
other parts of the continent.
[One color-banded song sparrow in a single summer] had no
fewer than five consecutive nests. . . . It would seem that, if
none of these nests had been interfered with, there would not have
been sufficient time for four or five in one season. . . . It
appears that one of the effects of parasitism may be to increase
the "nesting potential" of the host. . . .
As many as 7 cowbird eggs have been found in a single nest
of this sparrow; there are numerous records of 3, 4, and 5
parasitic eggs to a nest. Occasionally, but not often, song
sparrows may partly bury cowbird eggs by building a new nest
lining over them--if the alien egg is laid before any eggs of the
Salmon (1933, p.100) has reported seeing a song sparrow
feeding three fledgling cowbirds; no young sparrows were
mentioned. Lees (1939, p. 121) recorded that near Wetaskiwin,
Alberta, he watched a song sparrow feeding no less than five young
cowbirds. This must be a record of fledgling success for any host
Friedmann (1963) lists no instances of parasitization by the
bronze cowbird of subspecies of the song sparrow covered by these
life histories. Only the Mexican race mexicana has been
Other enemies of the song sparrow are at least four species of
hawks (Munro, 1940; Randall, 1940; Hamerstrom and Hamerstrom,
1951; Heintzelman, 1964) and at least five species of owls (Allen,
1924; Hawbecker, 1945; Johnston, 1956; Fisler, 1960; Graber,
1962). S. A. Altmann (1956) has reported mobbing of mounted
specimens of both screech and great horned owls, and F. Hamerstrom
(1957) witnessed mobbing of a tame red-tailed hawk. Forbush (1929)
mentions nest defense against snakes and turtles; he does not
indicate what turtles may be involved, but box turtles of the
middle west (Terrapene o. ornata), at least, have been
known to eat birds and their eggs (Legler, 1960).
A curious case in which a garter snake (Thamnophis s.
sirtalis) disgorged an adult song sparrow is reported by
Carpenter (1951), who suggests that the bird must have been found
dead and then eaten. Mahan (1956) discovered a milk snake (Lampropeltis
triangulum) eating song sparrow eggs in a nest 15 inches above
A number of external parasites taken from song sparrows east of
the Mississippi River, most of them within the range of melodia,
have been reported by Harold S. Peters (1936). These include the Mallophaga
Degeeriella vulgata (Kell.), Machaerilaemus maestum (Kell.
and Chap.), Menacanthus incerta (Kell.), Philopterus
subflavescens (Geof.), Ricinus melospizae (McGregor);
the bloodsucking hippoboscid flies Ornithoica confluenta
Say, and Ornithomyia anchineuria Speiser (syn. O.
fringillina); the mites Analgopsis sp., Liponyssus
sylvarium (C. and F.), Trombicula bisignata Ewing, Trombicula
cavicola Ewing; and the ticks Haemaphysalis
leporispalustris Packard, Ixodes brunneus Koch, and Ixodes
sp. Herman (1937) gives further data on the hippoboscids
parasitizing song sparrows, as does Boyd (1951); the latter would
apparently refer the records of Ornithoica confluenta to Ornithoica
vicina, as the parasite of song sparrows.
Nestling song sparrows are among the many species victimized by
the maggots of blow flies (Calliphoridae). Johnson (1932) found
larval Protocalliphora splendida (Macq.) in a nest, and
George and Mitchell (1948) report Apaulina metallica
(Townsend) (syn. Protocalliphora metallica).
Blood protozoa found in song sparrows (Herman, 1944) include a
number of species of the genera Haemoproteus, Leucocytozoon,
Plasmodium, Toxoplasma, and Trypanosoma.
Cats, other predatory mammals, and man are often responsible
for song sparrow deaths; and the physical environment takes its
toll in starvation (Forbush, 1929) and in the flooding of ground
Song sparrows are among the birds whose feet occasionally
exhibit large, rough, wart-like swellings. H. and J. R. Michener
(1936) have described the appearance and effect of this disease,
which they also imply may affect the wings and heads of song
sparrows, and which they regard as mildly contagious and epidemic.
Their observations were made in California. The disease runs its
course between from 1 to 5 months. Apparently it often produces no
noticeable after-effects, but it may cause the loss of the nails
and sometimes the phalanges. These authors quote a pathologist's
histological analysis of a foot of an unspecified species. The
opinion was that the lesions were not true tumors but were the
result of an unrecognized irritant or infection. Viruses are now
known to produce comparable effects in some birds (Herman, 1955).
Fall.--In Massachusetts, a few song
sparrows begin moving away from their breeding places in mid-July.
The fact that nests have been found in New York as late as August
25 (Eaton, 1914) suggests that it may be the young of the year
that move at so early a date. There is some conflict in the
evidence as to when the fall migration is at its peak. The data of
Steward and Robbins (1958) are perhaps the most recently reported
and based upon the most voluminous and varied factual data. These
authors state that in Maryland and the District of Columbia the
normal period of fall migration is between Sept. 20 - 30 and Nov.
20 - 30, with its peak between October 10 and 30. More northerly
latitudes would, of course, be correspondingly earlier, e.g., in
Maine "throughout September and most of October"
Winter.--Most song sparrows that
pass the winter in Massachusetts (Forbush, 1929) remain near the
sea, where there are usually patches of ground clear of snow. In
Ontario (Snyder, 1951) and New York (Eaton, 1914) the habitat at
this season is principally marshes and swamps. In Pennsylvania,
Todd (1940) says brushy thickets and fields with corn shocks are
frequented by song sparrows. The birds are not especially social,
but they are often seen in loose flocks of mixed composition and,
particularly in severe weather, may assemble in small companies
with other song sparrows.
South of the breeding range, in the deep south and southeast of
the United States, melodia is found with euphonia, juddi,
and, in places, atlantica. Here the birds seek the same
brushy, moist, riparian and marshy situations that they prefer for
breeding. Sprunt and Chamberlain (1949) describe such habitat in
South Carolina and say the song sparrow "often. . .is found
with swamp sparrows. . . . The thoroughly characteristic song is
delivered throughout the winter except in very cold weather or on
freezing days." In contradiction Arthur H. Howell (1932) in
his work on Florida says, "The Song Sparrow, so well known in
the North by its cheery song, is practically silent during its
stay in the South, except for its metallic, characteristic tchip."
Howell adds that the birds associate "in small loose
companies, but not in compact flocks." George H. Lowery, Jr.
(1960), of Louisiana, emphasizes the "entirely different
personality" of the song sparrow that winters in the south
and describes it as a shy and, it seems, silent skulker that
prefers the depths of thickets or "a rank growth of broom
[Eastern Song Sparrow]
Contributed by Val Nolan,
*Original Source: Bent,
Arthur Cleveland and collaborators (compiled and edited by Oliver
L. Austin, Jr.). 1968. Smithsonian Institution United States
National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 3): 1491-1512. United States
Government Printing Office
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