New World Finches: Emberizidae
Savanna Sparrow (passerculus Sandwichensis): Species Accounts
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.
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