Savannah Sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           5.5 in
  • Wingspan      6.75 in
  • AOU Band code    SASP

The Savannah Sparrow (SASP) is 5.5" long with a 6.75" wingspan. The genus name Passerculus is from the Latin meaning little sparrow. The species name sandwichensis is Latin, of place, Sandwich, Unalaska, or Aleutians area, from which came the first subspecies, Aleutian Savannah Sparrow, to be described. The common name honors Savannah, Georgia where Alexander Wilson discovered the species in 1811.

The SASP is highly variable. Most have yellow or whitish lores and eyebrow with a pale crown stripe and a dark whisker stripe. The upper breast and sides are streaked and it sometimes has a dark central spot. It has a short and notched tail. The numerous subspecies (21) vary geographically in size, color, bill size, and extent of streaking.

These sparrows are common in open habitats, marshes, and grasslands. The male sings to defend nesting territory and to attract a mate. The song begins with 2-3 chip notes, followed by two buzzy trills, the second trill lower than the first. One rendition is ti ti ti tseeeeee tisoooo.

Its diet is mostly insects, such as beetles, grasshoppers, caterpillars, flies, spiders, and others. Coastal birds will eat tiny crustaceans and mollusks. They also eat many seeds, mainly from grasses, weeds and some berries. Most foraging is done while walking or running on the ground, but it also forages in shrubs and small trees.

Nest sites are on the ground, usually hidden among grass or weeds and placed under matted dead plants or under overhanging grass, so the nest can only be approached through a tunnel from one side. The nest, built by the female, is an open cup made of grass and lined with finer grass. There are 2-6 eggs, typically 4, with more eggs tending to be laid in the north. The eggs are whitish to pale tan or greenish, with brown markings concentrated at the large end. The female incubates the eggs for 10-13 days. Both parents bring food to the nestlings. The young leave the nest about 8-11 days after hatching. They may have 1 or 2 broods per year.

Migration is mostly early in the spring and late in the fall and may be spread over a considerable period of time. Migration occurs mostly at night.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia atricapilla

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length 7 in

  • AOU Band code GCSP

The Golden-crowned Sparrow, four letter code GCSP, is relative common in our area from October through March and is found in dense woodlands, tangles and brush. Its summer breeding range is the west coast from British Columbia north to Alaska in mountain thickets and shrubs.

It is similar to the White-crowned Sparrow (WCSP) , about 7" long, but without white head stripes. Instead it has a dull yellow central crown stripe, usually bordered broadly with black. Back is brownish, streaked with dark brown: breast, sides and flanks are grayish-brown. Bill is dusky above and pale below compared to the WCSP’s bill which is pink, orange or yellowish. The immature’s yellow crown is less distinct on a brown crown. Winter adults are duller overall and the amount of black on the crown varies.

Song is a series of three or more plaintive, whistled notes, descending down the scale. The song sounds like "oh-dear-me" or "gol-den crown".

It feeds on or near the ground, eating seeds, buds leaves, flowers, insects and fruit. Comes to feeders where seed is scattered on ground or on trays. They are often seen with WCSPs in winter flocks. Male sings almost continuously during early breeding.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

White-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia Leucophry

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length          6.5-7 in
  • AOU Band code    WCSP

The White-crowned Sparrow (WCSP) is about 6 ½ - 7” long.  It has a boldly streaked black-and-white head; pink, orange or yellowish bill; whitish throat and clear gray breast.  The immature bird’s head is brown and buff and can be confused with immature Golden-crowned Sparrow; however, the immature WCSP has a pale eyebrow which the immature GCSP does not.  It is common in open woodlands, brushy grasslands, roadsides and parks.  It can be found throughout the western and southern U.S. winter.  It breeds in northern and western Canada to Alaska and in Rocky Mountains in the U.S.  It can be found year around in the western U.S. but larger numbers are seen in the winter.  The WCSP feeds on the ground, scratching back leaf debris with both feet while looking for seeds insects.  It will come to feeders with seed spread on the ground.  The nest is bulky and made of grasses, twigs, plant stems and is lined with fine grass, hair and feathers.  The female lays 3-5 pale blue or green eggs with darker spots.  Incubation period is 11-15 days and the young fledge in 10 days.  The WCSP may have from 1-4 broods in a year.  The call note is a sharp “pink”.  The song varies geographically with many local dialects.  The song in our area is commonly likened to “see me pretty pretty me-ee”.

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Lincoln's Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii

By Andy McCormick

  • 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. 

Photo by Ollie Oliver

Photo by Ollie Oliver

American Tree Sparrow

Spizelloides arborea

By Andrew McCormick

  • Length          6.25 in
  • Wingspan      9.5 in 
  • Weight           0.7 oz
  • AOU Band code    ATSP