The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, is a medium-sized American sparrow.
Adults have brown upperparts with dark streaks on the back and are white underneath with dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the breast. They have a brown cap and a long brown rounded tail. Their face is grey with a streak through the eye.
Adult sparrows go through two molts a year - in late summer and late winter. Juveniles undergo three molts in their first year - referred to as first plumage-cycle.
In the field, they are most easily confused with its congener the Lincoln's Sparrow, and the Savannah Sparrow. The former can be recognized by its shorter, greyer tail and the differently-patterned head, the brown cheeks forming a clear-cut angular patch. The Savannah Sparrow has a forked tail and yellowish flecks on the face when seen up close.
Distribution / Range
Their favorite habitat is brushy areas and marshes, including salt marshes, across most of Canada and the United States. In southern locations, they are permanent residents. Northern birds migrate to the southern United States or Mexico, where there is also a local population resident all year round. The Song Sparrow is a very rare vagrant to western Europe, with a few recorded in Great Britain and Norway.
Diet / Feeding
These birds forage on the ground, in shrubs or in very shallow water. They mainly eat insects and seeds. Birds in salt marshes may also eat small crustaceans.
During the winter, they eat 85 to 4,000 seeds an hour to maintain energy levels.
They visit platform feeders in search of millet and sunflower seed pieces.
Nesting / Breeding
They nest either in a sheltered location on the ground or in trees or shrubs.
The male of this species uses its melodious and fairly complex song to declare ownership of its territory and to attract females.
The song sparrow's song consists of a combination of repeated notes, quickly passing isolated notes, and trills. The songs are very crisp, clear, and precise, making them easily distinguishable by human ears. A particular song is determined not only by pitch and rhythm but also by the timbre of the trills. Although one bird will know many songs, unlike thrushes, the song sparrow usually repeats the same song many times before switching to a different song.
Song sparrows typically learn their songs from a handful of other birds that have neighboring territories. They are most likely to learn songs that are shared in common between these neighbors. Ultimately, they will choose a territory close to or replacing the birds that they have learned from. This allows the song sparrows to address their neighbors with songs shared in common with those neighbors. It has been demonstrated that song sparrows are able to distinguish neighbors from strangers on the basis of song, and also that females are able to distinguish (and prefer) their mate's songs from those of other neighboring birds, and they prefer songs of neighboring birds to those of strangers.
Other birds such as mockingbirds are not able to effectively imitate the song sparrow's song.
The Song Sparrow is one of the birds with the most numerous subspecies in North America, and even on a global scale rivals such species as the Horned Lark, the Yellow Wagtail, the Golden Whistler or the Island Thrush. 52 subspecies were named altogether, of which 24 are considered valid nowadays (Patten 2001; Arcese et al., 2002).
- Eastern group - small, brownish, long-winged forms with strong black streaks.
- Melospiza melodia melodia (Wilson, 1810). The nominate subspecies. Eastern half of North American range except coastal areas south from New York State. In winter, they migrate southeastwards. Very contrasting, very light with black streaks below, and grey margins to back feathers. This population includes the forms named as M. m. juddi Bishop, 1896; M. m. acadica Thayer and Bangs, 1914; M. m. beata (non Bangs) Todd, 1930; M. m. euphonia Wetmore, 1936; M. m. callima Oberholser, 1974 and M. m. melanchra Oberholser, 1974.
- Melospiza melodia atlantica Todd, 1924. Inhabits the Atlantic Coast salt marshes from New York State southwards; does not migrate. Differs from nominate by a gray back. Includes M. m. rossignolii Bailey, 1936.
- Melospiza melodia montana Henshaw, 1884. The subspecies west of melodia to the Rocky Mountains. Some birds from the northern part of its range migrate to NW Mexico in winter. Similar to nominate, but larger, duller coloration and more slender bill. Includes M. m. fisherella Oberholser, 1911.
- Northwestern group - large, dark, diffuse dark streaks. A study of mtDNA allozyme variation of most forms in this group concluded that they are of comparatively recent origin and that island populations are apparently derived independently from each other (Hare & Shields, 1992).
- Melospiza melodia maxima Gabrielson and Lincoln, 1951. W Aleutian Islands (Attu to Atka Island), resident. The largest subspecies (about the size of the California Towhee). Very gray overall, long, diffuse streaks. Bill long and slender.Melospiza melodia sanaka McGregor, 1901. Aleutians from Seguam Island east to Stepovak Bay, Alaska, and islands to the south of Alaskan Peninsula; resident. Similar to maxima; grayer still and bill even more slender. Includes the possibly distinct M. m. semidiensis Brooks, 1919 and the population from Amak Island (Pruett et al., 2004) named M. m. amaka Gabrielson and Lincoln, 1951 which was extirpated due to habitat destruction, apparently disappearing in the weeks around New Year's Eve, 1980/1981 (there were unconfirmed sightings in 1987 and 1988).Melospiza melodia insignis Baird, 1869. Kodiak Islands and Kukak and Katmai on Alaska Peninsula; many migrate south in winter. A darkish grey, medium-sized form.Melospiza melodia kenaiensis Ridgway, 1900. Resident; Pacific coast of Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound islands; some resident, some migrant. Smaller and browner than insignis.Melospiza melodia caurina Ridgway, 1899. Northern Gulf of Alaska coast, many migrate to Pacific Northwest in winter. A smaller version of kenaiensis.Melospiza melodia rufina (Bonaparte, 1850). Outer islands of Alexander Archipelago and Queen Charlotte Island; most are resident. A very dark, rufous, and small form. Includes M. m. kwaisa Cumming, 1933.Melospiza melodia morphna Oberholser, 1899. Coastal region of central British Columbia south to NW Oregon; resident. Lighter, more rufous than rufina. Previously M. m. cinerea (non Gmelin) (Audubon, 1839); M. m. phaea Fisher, 1902 are Central Oregon hybrids between this subspecies and M. m. cleonensis.Melospiza melodia merrilli Brewster, 1896. Occurs between the ranges of morphna and montana south to N Nevada; some migrate south in winter. Includes M. m. ingersolli McGregor, 1899 and M. m. inexspectata Riley, 1911 (of which inexpectata is a common lapsus). Doubtfully distinct; intermediate between morphna and montana in appearance also and may be hybrid birds.Melospiza melodia cleonensis McGregor, 1899. SW Oregon west of Cascade Mountains south to NW California. Brownish-buffish, notably on the flanks; no grey on back; underside with somewhat diffuse chestnut streaks.
- Cismontane California group - small, well-marked and short-winged brownish forms. All resident, except occasional birds from upland populations.
- Melospiza melodia gouldii Baird, 1858. Coastal central California, except San Francisco Bay. A very brown and clear-marked subspecies; buffish (not light grey) fringes of upper back. M. m. santaecrucis Grinnell, 1901 are hybrids with birds from southwards and Central Valley populations.Melospiza melodia samuelis (Baird, 1858). N San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay saltmarshes. A small, tiny-billed subspecies with dirty olive upperpart background.Melospiza melodia maxillaris Grinnell, 1909. Suisun Bay marshes. Dark upperparts; brown with grey mantle edges; plump bill base.Melospiza melodia pusillula Ridgway, 1899. E San Francisco Bay saltmarshes. Yellowest subspecies, paler than samuelis and clear yellow hue below.Melospiza melodia heermanni Baird, 1858. Central coastal California and Central Valley south to N Baja California. Similar in color to maxillaris but medium-sized mainland subspecies. Some N-S variation with birds becoming blacker on backs, local populations once separated as M. m. cooperi Ridgway, 1899 and M. m. mailliardi Grinnell, 1911. The latter, occurring around Modesto, may be distinct.Melospiza melodia graminea Townsend, 1890. Described from Santa Barbara Island, California Channel Islands. A smaller, pale-grey version of heermanni. Birds from the Coronados Islands were described as M. m. coronatorum Grinnell and Daggett, 1903, those from San Miguel Island as M. m. micronyx Grinnell, 1928 and those from San Clemente, Santa Rosa and Anacapa Islands as M. m. clementae Townsend, 1890. Hybrid population with heermanni on Santa Cruz Island. Extirpated on Santa Barbara (and possibly San Clemente) by feral cats, c.1967-1970.
- Southwestern group - small, pale, streaks rufous; all resident.
- Melospiza melodia fallax (Baird, 1854). Desert Song Sparrow. Sonoran and parts of Mojave Deserts to E Arizona. A pale ruddy desert form. Synonyms are M. m. saltonis Grinnell, 1909, M. m. virginis Marshall and Behle, 1942 and M. m. bendirei Phillips, 1943.Melospiza fasciata rivularis Bryant, 1888. Central Baja California. Similar to fallax, lightly streaked breast and long slender bill.Melospiza melodia goldmani Nelson, 1899. Not yet found outside El Salto area, Sierra Madre Oriental. Dark reddish brown back with brownish streaks just as in morphna.
- Mexican Plateau group - blak-spotted, white throats; all resident.
- M. m. adusta Nelson, 1899. Río Lerma drainage from Zacapú to Lago Yuriria. Bold black pattern on belly and back, clear white throat. Birds become less rudd brown going east.M. m. villai Phillips and Dickerman, 1957. Headwaters of Río Lerma near Toluca. Darker and duller brown than adusta, distinctly large.M. m. mexicana Ridgway, 1874. Hidalgo to Puebla. Duller and paler than adusta, birds becoming greyish going south. Includes M. m. azteca Dickerman, 1963 and M. m. niceae Dickerman, 1963. "M. m. pectoralis" (ex von Müller, 1865) cannot be assigned to a known Song Sparrow population.
The taxa mailliardi, maxillaris, samuelis (all Category 3), pusillula (Category 2) and graminea (Category 1) are listed as Species of Special Concern in California (California Department of Fish and Game, 2006).
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