Sparrows and Buntings

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Sparrows and Buntings

Biology of sparrows and buntings

Sparrows and buntings in North America

Sparrows and buntings elsewhere

Sparrows and humans


The typical sparrows, buntings, and their allies are 291 species of birds that comprise the family Emberizidae. The emberizid sparrows and buntings occur in a great variety of habitats, and are widely distributed, occurring on all of the habitable continents except for Southeast Asia and Australia. The greatest diversity of species, however, occurs in the Americas.

The phylogenetic relationships of the emberizid sparrows and other closely related species are complex and incompletely understood, and the systematics have been subject to recent revisions. Some taxono-mists interpret the Emberizidae more broadly and include the following subfamilies in it: the Emberizinae, containing typical sparrows and buntings; the Parulinae, or American wood-warblers; the Thraupinae, or tan-agers; the Cardinalinae, or cardinals and typical gros-beaks, the Icterinae, or American blackbirds, meadow-larks, orioles, bobolink, and cowbirds, and the Coerebinae, or bananaquits. Other ornithologists divide these groups into the following separate families: Emberizidae (typical sparrows and buntings), Parulidae (American wood-warblers), Icteridae (American blackbirds and their allies), Thraupidae (tanagers), Coerebidae (bana-quits). The cardinals and grosbeaks are placed in the subfamily Carduelinae of the Fringillidae family (finches). Nevertheless, these are all distinctive groups of birds, regardless of our understanding of their evolutionary relationships, and whether we call them sub-families or families.

A further point of discussion concerns the use of the words sparrow and bunting, both of which are taxonomically ambiguous terms. In the general sense, sparrows can be various species of conical-billed, seed-eating birds. These can include species in the family of the weaver finches, Ploceidae, such as the house sparrow (Passer domesticus ). However, the typical

sparrows are species of the Americas in the family Emberizidae, and these are the birds that are described in this entry.

Similarly, buntings can be certain species in the subfamily Cardinalinae, such as the indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea ). Buntings can also be species in the Emberizidae, mostly of the Old World genus Emberiza, plus several other genera that occur in North America. It is the emberizid buntings that are the typical buntings.

Biology of sparrows and buntings

The emberizid sparrows and buntings are all smallish birds with a short, stout, conical-shaped bill, well-adapted for picking and crushing seeds as food.

The various species of emberizids are rather similarly colored in shades of streaky grays and browns. However, the particular species can usually be identified on the basis of diagnostic, albeit sometimes subtle differences in the patterns and colorations of their plumage. In addition, species can always be separated on the basis of their preferred breeding habitat, and on their distinctive songs and call-notes. Most species of emberizids have streaked patterns on their back and breast, and some have bold markings of black, white, or chestnut around the head. Many species have a sexually dimorphic plumage, in which the females have a relatively subdued, cryptic coloration, while the plumage of males is brighter and more boldly patterned and colored.

Emberizids mostly forage on or near the ground, commonly scratching and kicking with their feet in the surface dirt and litter, searching for food items. The usual food of most emberizids is seeds. However, during the nesting season, insects and other invertebrates are a relatively important food item, especially for feeding to fast-growing babies, which require a diet rich in protein.

Emberizids are highly territorial during their breeding season, proclaiming their territory by singing, which in many species is quite loud, rich, and musical. Some species of open habitats, such as prairies and tundra, deliver their song while engaged in a slowly descending flight.

The emberizids occur in a great variety of habitats, although most species are partial to places that are relatively open, interspersed with shrubs or trees, or more densely shrubby. Few species occur in mature, densely stocked, closed forests.

Species that breed in relatively northern habitats with severe winters are all migratory. These birds take advantage of the often great availability of foods during the growing season in northern latitudes, but spend their non-breeding season farther to the south, where food is more available during winter, and general living conditions are more benign. During the non-breeding season, most migratory species of emberizids occur in flocks. Species that forage in open habitats, such as fields and prairies, generally form especially large flocks.

Sparrows and buntings in North America

There are about 50 species of emberizid sparrows and their allies that breed regularly in North America. Some of the more widespread of these are briefly described below.

The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia ) is one of the most widespread of the sparrows, breeding over much of Canada and the United States, and as far south as Mexico. The usual habitat of this abundant bird is shrubby, commonly beside lakes, rivers, or streams, along forest edges, in regenerating burns or cutovers, and in parks and gardens. This species has a dark-brown plumage, with a dark spot in the middle of its streaky breast.

Lincolns sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii ) is a similar-looking, close relative of the song sparrow, but is much-less familiar to most people because of its habit of skulking unseen within dense vegetation. This species breeds extensively in Canada and the western mountains of the United States. The swamp sparrow (M. georgiana ) is similar to the previous two species, but breeds in shrubby wetlands beside lakes, rivers, and streams, and in more-extensive marshes. This species breeds widely in eastern Canada and the northeastern states, and winters in the eastern United States.

The fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca ) is a relatively large, heavily streaked bird that breeds in thickets, regenerating burns and cutovers, and open forests. The fox sparrow occurs in the boreal and montane zones, and ranges as far south as central Utah, Colorado, and Nevada.

The savanna sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis ) is a very widespread species, breeding in suitably open, grassy habitats over all of Canada and much of the United States. This species mostly winters in the southern United States and parts of Central America. The savanna sparrow is a heavily streaked, brownish bird with distinctive, light-yellow patches over the eyes. The Ipswich sparrow (P. sandwichensis princeps ) is a large, light-colored subspecies that breeds only in dune-grass habitats on Sable Island in the western Atlantic Ocean, and winters along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. The Ipswich sparrow is sometimes treated as a distinct species (P. princeps ).

The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis ) breeds over much of temperate and boreal Canada and New England. The usual habitat of this species is brushy, and includes open forests, forest edges, regenerating burns and cutovers, and abandoned farmland. The territorial song of this abundant species consists of a series of loud, clear whistles, and is one of the most familiar sounds of the springtime in woodlands within its range. Birdwatchers in the United States learn the very distinctive song of the white-throated sparrow as: old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, but Canadians memorize it as: I love Canada, Canada, Canada. The head of the white-throated sparrow is prominently marked with light-shaded stripes, which can be colored either bright-white or tan. Individuals with white stripes are relatively aggressive in the defense of their territory, and in their general interactions with others of their species. Consequently, a hyperaggressive male white-stripe can mate successfully with a relatively submissive female tan-stripe, but not with a female white-stripe, because the two would fight too much.

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys ) breeds widely in boreal and montane coniferous forests across Canada and the western United States, and winters in the southern States. The golden-crowned sparrow (Z. atricapilla) is a closely related species, breeding in coastal, coniferous rainforests of western Alaska and British Columbia, and wintering in the coastal, western United States.

The chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina ) breeds in open, treed habitats from the boreal region through to Nicaragua in Central America, and winters in the southern United States and further south. This common species has a rufous cap, a bright-white line through the eye, and a whitish, unstreaked breast. The American tree sparrow (S. arborea) breeds in shrubby habitats and open forests throughout most of the northern boreal forest. Tree sparrows winter in large flocks in fields and brushy habitats throughout central North America. The clay-colored sparrow (S. pallida) breeds in shrubby meadows, riparian habitats, and forest edges of the prairie region of North America, and winters in Texas and Mexico.

The vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus ) breeds in natural prairies, and in weedy fields and pastures throughout north-temperate regions of North America.

The lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus ) breeds in open, dry habitats with scattered trees, including native prairies and abandoned agricultural lands. Lark sparrows occur over most of the central and western United States. These birds have bright, chestnut-and-white patterns on their head.

The black-throated or desert sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata ) occurs in arid habitats in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. This species has a gray back, a black breast, and black-and-white stripes on the face. The closely related sage sparrow (A. belli ) breeds in dry, shrubby habitats of the western states.

The grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum ) breeds in drier prairies, hayfields, and old-fields in central regions of the continent. LeContes sparrow (A. leconteii ) breeds in tall, moist, grassy and sedge meadows in the prairies, and winters in the southeastern states. The sharp-tailed sparrow (A. caudacuta ) breeds in salt marshes along the Atlantic and Hudson Bay seacoasts, and in brackish wet meadows in the prairies.

The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis ) breeds in recently disturbed coniferous forests throughout Canada and much of the western United States. This species winters in weedy fields and brushy habitats throughout the United States. The dark-eyed junco has a gray head and breast, and depending on the subspecies, either a gray or a brownish back and wings.

The lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys ) breeds in shortgrass prairies and semi-deserts from southern Alberta to northern Texas. Males have a black body with large, white wing-patches, while females look like more-typical sparrows, with a streaky brown plumage.

The towhees are relatively large, long-tailed, ground-feeding species of shrubby habitats. The rufous-sided towhee (Piplio erythrophthalmus ) breeds in thick, brushy habitats through southern Canada and the United States, and as far south as Guatemala in Central America. Males have a black back, rufous sides, and a white belly, while females have a brown backboth sexes usually have brilliant-red eyes. The rufous-sided towhee is named after one of its call notes, which sounds like tow-whee, and this bird also has a loud, easily recognizable song that sounds like: drink-your-teeeea. The green-tailed towhee (P. chlorurus ) breeds in brushy habitats in the western United States, while the brown towhee (P. fuscus ) occurs in shrubby habitats in the Southwest, including suburban gardens and parks.

The Lapland longspur (Calcarius lapponicus ) breeds throughout the northern tundra of North America, and also in northern Europe and Asia, where it is known as the Lapland bunting. This species winters in native prairies and agricultural landscapes to the south of its breeding range. The very attractive, breeding plumage of the males includes a jet-black face and bib, and a bright-chestnut back of the head, but the non-breeding plumage is much more subdued. McCowns longspur (C. mccownii ) breeds in the short-grass prairies of North America, and winters to the south in Texas and Mexico. The chestnut-collared longspur (C. ornatus ) has a similar distribution.

The snow bunting, snowflake, or snowbird (Plectrophenax nivalis ) breeds throughout the arctic tundra of North America, and also in arctic regions of Europe and Asia. The snow bunting winters widely in temperate regions of North America, sometimes occurring in large flocks in snow-covered agricultural areas and coastal dunes. The male snow bunting has an attractive, highly contrasting, black-and-white plumage, with the head and breast being a bright white, and the wings and back a jet black. Females have a more subdued, light-brownish coloration. Because it tends to appear just as the snow starts to fly, the snow bunting is a familiar harbinger of winter for people in its southern, non-breeding range. However, for people living in small communities in the tundra of northern Canada, returning snow buntings are a welcome herald of the coming springtime, following a long, hard winter. The closely related McKays bunting (P. hyperboreus ) breeds on several islands in the Bering Sea, and winters in coastal, western Alaska.

Sparrows and buntings elsewhere

Species of buntings of the genus Emberiza do not breed in North America, but are relatively diverse in Eurasia and Africa. In fact, of the 40 species of enberizids breeding in the Old World, 37 are in the genus Emberiza. One widespread species is the yellow-hammer (Emberiza citrinella), a familiar, yellow-bellied


Extinct The condition in which all members of a group of organisms have ceased to exist.

Extirpation The condition in which a species is eliminated from a specific geographic area of its habitat.

Sexual dimorphism The occurrence of marked differences in coloration, size, or shape between males and females of the same species.

Superspecies A complex of closely related groups of organisms that are geographically, ecologically, and morphologically distinct, but are nevertheless considered to be the same species. The seasise sparrows are a superspecies, in which many of the various subspecies were formerly believed to be separate species.

bird of forest edges and shrubby habitats. The reed bunting (E. schoeniclus ) is a black-headed, brown-backed species of marshy habitats and wet meadows.

Sparrows and humans

Species of sparrows are among the more common species of birds that visit seed-bearing feeders. This is particularly true during the wintertime, when natural seeds can be difficult to find because of the snowpack. Bird-feeding has a significant economic impact, with millions of dollars being spent each year in North America to purchase and provision backyard feeders.

Some species of sparrows are fairly easy to keep in captivity, and they are kept as pet cagebirds. Especially commonly kept are species of Emberiza buntings, particularly in Europe.

Some sparrows have become rare and endangered because of changes in their habitat caused by humans. In the United States, certain subspecies of the seaside sparrow (Ammodramus maritimus ) have been affected in this way. The dusky seaside sparrow (A. m. nigrescens ) was a locally distributed bird of salt marshes on the east coast of Florida, and was once considered to be a distinct species (as Ammospiza nigrescens ), but recent taxonomists have lumped with related birds within a seaside sparrow superspecies. Unfortunately, the dusky seaside sparrow became extinct in 1987, when the last known individual, a male bird, died in captivity. This bird became extinct as a result of losses of habitat through drainage and construction activities, and perhaps toxicity due to the spraying of insecticides to control mosquitoes in its salt-marsh habitat, which was close to places used for tourism and residential land-uses. The closely related Cape Sable seaside sparrow (A. m. mirabilis) of southern Florida has similarly become endangered, and several of its former populations have been extirpated.

The San Clemente sage sparrow (Amphispiza belli clementeae) is a threatened subspecies of the sage sparrow that is resident to the island of San Clemente off the coast of southern California. This species has suffered because of habitat degradation caused by introduced populations of goats and pigs. The Zapata sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata) is a rare and endangered species that only occurs in three small areas on the island of Cuba.

See also Weavers.



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Byers, C., U. Olsson, and J. Curson. Buntings and Sparrows. Golden, CO: Pica Press, 1995.

Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. The Birders Handbook. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Forshaw, Joseph. Encyclopedia of Birds. 2nd ed. New York: Academic Press, 1998.

Harrison, C.J.O., ed. Bird Families of the World. New York: Abrams, 1978.

Rising, James D. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Knopf, 2000.

Bill Freedman

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Sparrows and Buntings

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