New World Finches: Emberizidae
NEW WORLD FINCHES: EmberizidaeSONG SPARROW (Melospiza melodia): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
SNOW BUNTING (Plectrophenax nivalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
BLUE-BLACK GRASSQUIT (Volatinia jacarina): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
SAVANNA SPARROW (Passerculus sandwichensis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS
New World finches consist of buntings and New World sparrows. They are small- to medium-sized birds, with a short, conical bill, medium-sized legs, rather large feet, and a short- to medium-length tail. The bill's upper and lower parts can be moved sideways in some species. Most species have dull black, brown, olive, gray, or beige plumage (feathers), but some species are brightly colored in rich chestnut or pale buffy browns with white or black areas. All have wings with nine main feathers, although a short tenth may be present. Faces contain patterns of black, white, and buff, sometimes with yellow or buffy orange stripes. Males are generally larger than females. Sexes look alike in plumage in most species but are very different in others. New World finches are 4.0 to 9.5 inches (10 to 24 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.3 and 2.6 ounces (8 and 75 grams).
New World finches live in open and semi-open bushy or grassland areas, forest edges, tundra, prairies and meadows, deserts, hilly meadows, salt and freshwater marshes, and oak and pine woods.
Diet consists mostly of seeds, berries, fruits, and other vegetation, but often switches to protein-rich insects when birds are feeding their young. Many birds feed near the ground, scratching away leaf litter to find food. Its conical bill is adapted to pick up seed shells and take out seeds.
BEHAVIOR AND REPRODUCTION
New World finches are diurnal (active during the day) birds; although some species sing at night during breeding. While singing, males sit where they will be easily seen, and throw back their head and ruffle their crown (top of head) or rump feathers. The birds sing mostly songs of simple notes. Species of tundra or prairie regions sing while in flight. The birds are territorial, with males defending with the use of songs, chases, and fights. Territories are used for nesting and foraging, but may leave the territory to look for food. New World finches usually migrate in small, loose flocks of numerous species. Some species form large flocks.
They are for the most part monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus) birds (that is, during a breeding season, one male is associated with one female). Exceptions occur in some species, probably due to differences in territory quality. Males sing to attract a mate, followed by chasing and shaking her, and then tumbling together on the ground. In some cases, birds mate with several individuals. The nest that is built is usually cup-shaped, and neatly made from grasses, weeds, roots, and other fibers. It is lined with mosses, hair, feathers, or wool. Nests are usually built on the ground or low in a bush. Females lay four to six off-white (usually light brown or light blue with reddish, brownish, or blackish marks) eggs. In all cases, only the female incubates (sitting before hatching) her eggs, usually for ten to fourteen days. When a breeding pair is present, both members will help to feed and care for young. The fledgling period (time necessary for young bird to grow feathers necessary to fly) is ten to fifteen days.
NEW WORLD FINCHES AND PEOPLE
People often keep New World finches as pets in order to enjoy their beautiful songs. They are beneficial in agricultural communities because they eat many insects.
Six species of emberizids are listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; seven species are listed as Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; nine species are listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; and two species are listed as Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction.
Physical characteristics: Song sparrows are medium- to large-sized sparrows that vary greatly in physical characteristics due to its large geographical range. They have streaked plumage (feathers), a long tail with a rounded tail tip, a brown to light rusty rounded head with a paler median crown stripe, a broad, grayish stripe above the eyes and very visible brown cheek stripes. They also have a whitish throat, stout bill, a brownish, grayish, or brownish gray patchy back, a heavily streaked breast with a dark central spot, whitish under parts, and pinkish legs and feet. Males and females look alike. Young song sparrows have brown crowns, heavily streaked under parts, and are more buff colored than adults. Adults are 5.75 to 7.50 inches (14.6 to 19.1 centimeters) long, with a wingspan of 8.25 to 12.5 inches (21.0 to 31.8 centimeters) and a weight of about 0.7 ounces (20 grams).
Geographic range: They live along the western coast of Alaska, Canada, central Mexico, Baja California, and the western coast of the United States and throughout most of the northern, west-central and east-central parts of the United States. They breed from the Aleutian Island, along the southern coast of Alaska, east across southern Nunavut, northern Ontario, and central Quebec to southwest Newfoundland, and south to Georgia, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Most of the northern breeding birds migrate in the fall to southern Florida, the Gulf Coast, northern Mexico, and southern Baja California.
Habitat: Song sparrows are located in open brushy and shrubby areas, thickets, riparian (along the riverbank) scrublands, weedy fields, and grassy areas; often near ponds, streams, marshes, and seacoasts, especially where thickets occur. In winter, they are found in brush lands and woodland edges.
Diet: Song sparrows feed mostly on insects (and their larvae [LAR-vee]) and other invertebrates in the summer, but switch to mostly seeds in the winter. They also eat grains, berries, and some fruits, mostly from the ground or by picking food off of trees, bushes, and other vegetation. Coastal species catch small mollusks and crustaceans (hard-shelled creatures).
Behavior and reproduction: Song sparrows prefer to stay in low vegetation. When on the ground, they hop or run. When singing, they perch in a tree, bush, or on top of a weed where they are easily seen. They sing loud, pleasant, musical phrases; usually whistling two to three clear notes, followed by a trill. There is much song variation with the typical song being three or four short clear notes followed by a buzzy "tow-wee," then a trill. Their hollow call is a "chimp" or "what." When alarmed, they give a high, hard "tik." When flying, they pump their tail up and down and give out a thin "seeet." Territories are defended with chases and fights. In winter, they form into loose flocks that contain many sparrow species.
They prefer living alone and in pairs, but may be found in small loose flocks in winter, often with other sparrow species. They are generally monogamous birds, but can be polygynous (puh-LIJ-uh-nus; having more than one mate). Males aggressively defend their territory, often fighting with other males. Their bulky cup-shaped nests are made of leaves, bark strips, grasses, stems, and other plants; and lined with fine materials. Song sparrows usually place nests on the ground, among grasses, or in a low-lying bush or thicket. Nests are usually near a stream. Females lay three to six eggs that are greenish white with reddish brown markings. Nesting is done from late February to August. The incubation period is ten to fourteen days, and the fledgling period is seven to fourteen days. The pair feeds and takes care of the young. Two to three broods are possible each year, with four broods possible in southern areas.
Song sparrows and people: There is no known significant relationship between song sparrows and people.
Conservation status: Song sparrows are not threatened. They are often hurt by parasitism from the brown-headed cowbird, which lays its eggs in the song sparrows' nests so that the song sparrow takes care of the cowbird's young, neglecting its own chicks. ∎
Physical characteristics: Snow buntings show differences between males and females, but all have a rounded head, stocky body, and white outer tail feathers. Generally, females are browner in color, with less white on the plumage. Males (in summer) have a white head, black back that sometimes has brown patches, a black rump patched with white, white outer tail feathers partially tipped with black, and white under parts. The white areas, in winter, are thinly coated with pale rusty brown. Females (in summer) look like breeding males, but have a crown that is dusky and black areas are paler, often brownish. In winter, females look like winter males. Juveniles are grayish with a pale abdomen and buffy eye rings. They are 6.0 to 7.5 inches (15 to 19 centimeters) long, and weigh about 1.5 ounces (42 grams).
Geographic range: In the autumn, they migrate to the British Isles, the coast of northern France, Denmark, Poland, Germany, southern Russia, Manchuria, Kuril Islands, Korea, and Hokkaido (the northernmost Japanese island); and in North America to western and southern Alaska and from central and southern Canada south along the Pacific coast to northern California, the central Plains, and coastal North Carolina. In the spring, they move north to Iceland, northern Scotland, the mountains of Sweden and Norway, Spitzbergen, Franz Joseph Land, north Kola Peninsula, Novaya Zemlya, northern Russia and northern Siberia east to Wrangel Island, the Bering Strait, and south to east Kamchatka, northern Alaska and mountains of Alaska, northern Canada north to Labrador, and the coast of Greenland.
Habitat: During breeding season, they are found in sparse, dry, rocky tundra areas such as seashores, mountain slopes, and cliffs. During times of migration and nonbreeding season, they are found in fields, pastures, roadsides, and at beaches.
Diet: Snow buntings eat insects and other invertebrates during the summer, but switch mostly to seeds and grains in the winter.
Behavior and reproduction: They are migratory birds, with males arriving at breeding areas before females. At this time, males find a territory and begin to defend it by chasing away other birds, singing while in flight to make their presence known, and fighting when necessary. They run while on the ground, generally staying on the ground when not flying. Their song, sung during breeding, is a loud, high-pitched musical warbling. Their calls include a sharp, whistled "tew," a short buzz, and a musical rattle or twitter.
Snow buntings are for the most part monogamous birds, but sometimes males or females will have two mates. Nesting occurs from late May through July. Nests are made with dried grassy plants, lichens, and grasses, and look like a large, thick-walled bulky cup. They are constructed on the ground, frequently in rock crevices. Sometimes they build nests in birdhouses and other artificial structures. Females lay between three to nine eggs, but usually from four to seven. The incubation period is from ten to fifteen days, and the fledgling period is from ten to seventeen days after hatching. Both in the breeding pair feed and take care of young.
Snow buntings and people: There is no known significant relationship between people and snow buntings.
Conservation status: Snow buntings are not threatened. ∎
Physical characteristics: Blue-black grassquit males and females portray different characteristics. Males are blue-black all over, while females are brown with paler under parts and a dark-streaked chest. Juveniles look like adult females. They are 4.0 to 4.3 inches (10.2 to 10.9 centimeters) long, and weigh about 0.34 ounces (9.7 grams).
Geographic range: They range from central Mexico south to northern Chile, east to the eastern coast of Brazil, and south to central Argentina. They are also found on Grenada.
Habitat: Blue-black grassquits like low, seasonally wet grasslands, arid lowland scrublands, farmlands, riverside thickets, and weedy fields. The birds are found from sea level to 3,600 feet (1,100 meters) in altitude.
Diet: Their diet is almost always grass seeds, although they do sometimes eat insects and berries. They pick seeds from grass seed heads and from grit and seeds left on roads.
Behavior and reproduction: Males sing from perches that make them very visible. The also jump upward with a flick of their wings. In winter, they join flocks of a few hundred seed-eating birds. They are monogamous birds. Nests are built low to the ground, usually not more than 10 feet (3 meters) off the ground. From May through October, females lay two to three eggs. Incubation and fledgling periods are not known.
Blue-black grassquits and people: People and blue-black grassquits have no known significance between them.
Conservation status: Blue-black grassquits are not threatened. They are abundant in many areas. ∎
Physical characteristics: Savanna sparrows are very variable in color. But, they are generally brown or dark brown streaked on the back and breast. They have a whitish yellow stripe above the eyes, a pale or whitish median crown stripe, a rather short, notched tail, buff to white under parts with brown streaking, and pinkish legs and feet. Males and females are alike in color. Birds differ in physical characteristics due to where they are located. They are about 5.5 inches (14 centimeters) long, with a wingspan of about 6.75 inches (17 centimeters) and a weight of about 0.7 ounces (20 grams).
Geographic range: They live along the west coast from southern British Columbia south to southern Baja California, along the west coast of Mexico, south to central Sinaloa, and in the highlands of central Mexico. During the winter, they migrate to the east coast of the United States, west through the central Plains, and south to northern Central America. They breed from northern Alaska, northern Canada (except for the arctic islands), south to northern Georgia, the central Great Plains, and south in the mountains to Guatemala.
Habitat: Savanna sparrows live in open areas, such as grassy and wet meadows, farm fields, pastures, roadsides, bogs, the edge of salt marshes, and tundra.
Diet: They eat insects, spiders, and a number of other invertebrates, seeds, and fruits in the summer, but forage mostly on seeds in the winter. They forage on the ground, low in bushes and weeds, and on beaches along the tide line and in piles of seaweed, terrestrial plants, and animal remains that wash ashore.
Behavior and reproduction: They are found alone, in pairs, and in small family groups during the summer, but during migration and winter they are found in loose flocks. The birds spend most of their time on the ground, usually hopping or running about. When disturbed, they scurry through grasses, only flying off a short distance as a last resort. At night, savanna sparrows roost on the ground in small huddled groups. Males are very territorial, and can be found singing from an exposed perch to warn intruders. They are strong fliers, usually flying in direct routes. Their song begins with two to three "chip" notes, followed by two buzzy insect-like trills "tip-tip-seeeee-saaaay." Their general call is a thin "seep," while their flight call is a high "tsiw."
Savanna sparrows are usually monogamous, but males are sometimes bigamists (having two mates). Some marsh-dwelling species are polygynous. Nests are woven into the shape of a cup; made with grasses and other vegetation. Nests are made on the ground or in a slight depression that is partly covered by grasses or other vegetation. From February to August, females lay one to two clutches of two to six eggs. The incubation period is ten to thirteen days and the fledgling period is seven to fourteen days. Both parents share in feeding and caring of young.
Savannah sparrow and people: There is no known significant relationship between people and savanna sparrows.
Conservation status: Savanna sparrows are common throughout most of their range, but are declining in eastern North America as their natural habitats are degraded or lost. The marsh-dwelling birds are Vulnerable because flooding, draining, and filling of marshes can rapidly change the environment. Pollution is particularly hurtful to the birds in agricultural lands. ∎
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Alsop, Fred J. III. Birds of North America. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2001.
Baughman, Mel M., ed. Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2003.
del Hoyo, Josep, Andrew Elliott, Jordi Sargatal, Jose Cabot, et al., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Barcelona: Lynx Edicions, 1992.
Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 4th ed. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2002.
Forshaw, Joseph, ed. Encyclopedia of Birds, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1998.
Harrison, Colin James Oliver. Birds of the World. London and New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1993.
Kaufman, Kenn, with collaboration of Rick and Nora Bowers and Lynn Hassler Kaufman. Birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Sibley, David. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Terres, John K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf, 1980.