Lincoln's Sparrow

Bird of the Month: Lincoln's Sparrow

By Andy McCormick

PC: Seth Kapp / Audubon Photography Awards (Lincoln’s Sparrow)

PC: Seth Kapp / Audubon Photography Awards (Lincoln’s Sparrow)

Scientific Name: Melospiza lincolnii

Length 5.75 in

Wingspan 7.5 in

Weight 20.6 oz

AOU Band code LISP

Lincoln’s Sparrow is one of those little brown birds that give many birders a lot of trouble in identification.  It is a secretive bird that forages on the ground in dense cover of brush or thick grasses making it difficult to see.  During breeding season, however, the male will make itself known by singing from a high perch to mark its territory.  It is smaller than the chunky Song Sparrow and lighter in color.  It is also browner on the back and wing.  Although both species can have a breast spot, Lincoln’s Sparrow has a smaller spot with fine streaking confined to the upper chest and sides.  The buffy chest wash, not present on the Song Sparrow, contrasts with its white belly.  Lincoln’s Sparrow has a narrow buffy eye-ring contrasting with the gray face.  The buffy moustache stripe is distinctive. 

Lincoln’s Sparrow is the shy sister of the Song Sparrow and is more common in the west than the east.  With the Swamp Sparrow of eastern North America all three birds share the genus Melospiza from the Greek melos, song, and spiza, the chaffinch, a common Old World finch.  Lincolnii is in honor of Thomas Lincoln (1812-1883) who accompanied John James Audubon on a trip to Labrador where he found this bird.  Sparrow is from the Anglo-Saxon spearwa, to flutter (Holloway).

The subalpine and montane regions are the primary breeding ground for Lincoln’s Sparrow.  In Washington this is generally along the Cascade Range.  The bird nests in marshy areas thick with willows and alders.  The nest is a neat cup of grasses built only by the female.  The bird generally deposits four short-oval eggs which are pale-greenish or blueish with brown or red-brown spots.  The young hatch after about two weeks of incubation.  Their departure from the nest about four days after hatching is animated by wing flapping and practice flights.  They make longer flights after about six more days (Ammon).   The birds eat insects, including flies, beetles, ants and moths, and spiders in breeding season and the seeds of various grasses in winter.  

 Lincoln’s Sparrows winter in the southern United States but some will stay in tall grass areas at lower elevations and along the Washington coast.  They are being seen with more regularity in the East Meadow area of Marymoor Park where Eastside Audubon has developed a bird loop walk.  They are also seen in Discovery Park.  Lincoln’s Sparrows migrate north and to higher elevations starting in late March and continuing through May.  They nest in June and July and fall migration begins in September.  

The habitat preference for Lincoln’s Sparrows is very specific for breeding in subalpine marshland and wintering in grasslands and it can be vulnerable to changes in these areas.  Of the three subspecies of Lincoln’s Sparrow, M. l. gracilis, which breeds along the Northwest coast, is the least studied group.   At this time the population of Lincoln’s Sparrows is stable.