Cuban sparrow (Torreornis inexpectata)

Also known as: Zapata sparrow
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusTorreornis (1)
SizeLength: 17 cm (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List 2006 (1).

The Cuban sparrow belongs to a family of small birds, with medium-sized legs and large feet used to scratch the ground to locate food (3). It is a fairly plump sparrow, with greyish-olive upperparts, with dark streaks, and a chestnut crown. The white throat is bordered by a black whisker, appearing somewhat like a moustache. The rest of the plumage is pale yellow. These sparrows are weak fliers with short and rounded wings (2) (4), and the bill is short and conical, designed for peeling seeds (3). There are three known subspecies; Torreornis inexpectata inexpecta and Torreornis inexpectata varonai are similar in appearance, both being rather bright, whereas Torreornis inexpectata sigmani is duller, with an almost grey crown. Immature birds are paler than adults (2). The call is a short, high-pitched trill at intervals, with a quiet tic-tic-tic. During the breeding season a pair will duet, with a series of rasping, long, high-pitched notes, ending on a deeper note (4).

Occurs only in Cuba, in three distinct and widely separated populations. T.i.inexpecta occurs on the Zapata peninsula, north of Santo Tomás, T.i.varonai is found in Cayo Coco in the northern Ciego de Avila province, and T.i.sigmani is restricted to the coastal region between Baitiquiri and Imías in Guantanamo province (2).

The Cuban sparrow occurs in a wide range of habitats. T.i.inexpecta inhabits extensive grassland prairies, which flood to depths of 0.3 – 0.6 m for half the year. T.i.varonai occurs primarily in dry and semi-wet forest, but also in coastal vegetation, and T.i.sigmani inhabits areas with dry thorn scrub, cacti and scattered trees (2).

The Cuban sparrow breeds between April and June, and constructs cup-shaped nests. In a Zapata swamp these nests were found on top of tussocks. The largest clutch found so far consisted of two eggs (2).

These birds are usually observed in pairs, or in groups of three, but are occasionally seen in groups of up to 12 (4). The diet of the Cuban sparrow is as variable as its habitat. In the Zapata peninsula during the flooded season, they feed extensively on eggs of water snails, and also small lizards. During the dry season, this changes to a diet of seeds and small invertebrates. In Cayo Caco, they search for insects on the ground and among plants, and also eat seeds and fruit found in the leaf litter. The population in the Guantanamo province also consume cactus fruits (2).

The largest threat the Cuban sparrow faces is habitat degradation. Potential threats to the habitat in the Zapata region include drainage, the expansion of agriculture and the associated pollution. Logging and grazing in swamps also alters the habitat to which the Cuban sparrow is adapted to (5). Subspecies T.i.varonai is threatened by habitat loss resulting from the expansion of the tourism industry, and the cactus scrub habitat in Guantanamo is threatened by grazing, felling of trees and the habitat conversion associated with increased urbanization (5).

Each of the subspecies has been recorded occurring within a protected area. For example, in Zapata there is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, a Ramsar site, and also the Zapata Peninsula National Park. However, the level of actual protection they offer the Cuban sparrow is variable. Increased protection to the areas they inhabit, as well as investigation into proposed developments in these regions, with steps taken to reduce the impact on Cuban sparrows, is recommended to protect the future of this endangered bird (4).

For further information on this species see:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
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  1. IUCN Red List (January, 2007)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Garrido, O.H. and Kirkconnell, A. (2000) Birds of Cuba. Christopher Helm Ltd, London.
  3. Burnie, D. (2001) Animal. Dorling Kindersley, London.
  4. Birdlife International (May, 2007)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/species/index.html?action=SpcHTMDetails.asp&sid=9026&m=0
  5. Wild World (May, 2007)
    http://www.nationalgeographic.com/wildworld/terrestrial.html