Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusSpizella (1)
SizeLength: 12 - 15 cm (2)
Wingspan: 20 cm (2)
Weight11 - 15 g (2)

The field sparrow is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

Probably best known for its simple yet distinctive song, the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) is a relatively common sight and sound in eastern North America, especially during the summer months. The characteristic song of the field sparrow is made up of pure, clear notes, and is an accelerating series of soft, sweet whistles which become more rapid until they make a distinctive trill (2) (3).

The field sparrow is predominantly rusty-brown on the crown and back, with white or grey underparts (2) (3). There is a white ring around the eye, and rusty-brown streaks on the feathers around the ear, which contrast with the grey face (3). Some of the feathers on the wings are tipped with white, forming two conspicuous wing bands, and the tail is brown with pale grey edges to the feathers. The pinkish legs and bill distinguish the field sparrow from other similar species across its range (3).

The male and female field sparrow are very similar in appearance, although the male is usually slightly larger than the female (3). Juveniles of this species are generally less colourful than the adults, but have some dusky streaks of colour on the crown, sides and chest (2) (3).

The field sparrow is found only in North America, where it occurs throughout the year in much of the eastern United States. During the breeding season, the field sparrow occurs in Ontario and Quebec in Canada, and from Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, east to Maine and New Brunswick, and south to Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and along the Gulf Coast to Georgia in the United States (2) (3). 

The winter range of the field sparrow extends slightly further south, encompassing areas of New Mexico and Florida, and ranging to Coahuila, central Nuevo León and Tamaulipas in Mexico (2) (4).

The field sparrow generally breeds in old fields, on the edges of brushy fields and forests, in openings in woodland areas, and along roadsides and railroads. It may occasionally breed in orchards, tree farms (such as Christmas tree farms) or nurseries (3) (5).

During the non-breeding season, the field sparrow may be found on abandoned agricultural land and grazed fields, as well as in forest edges and open fields (2) (3).

The field sparrow forages mainly on the ground or in low vegetation, where it seeks small seeds and insects (2) (3). In the winter, seeds and grains from grasses form an important part of this species’ diet (3) (5). The young are fed on variety of insects, from caterpillars and grasshoppers to flies, bees and katydids, depending on the season (5).

Often described as an ‘edge’ species, the field sparrow often nests on the border of forests, where it is usually found no more than a few metres past the forest edge. It also nests in open fields (4). Nest building begins around May (3), with the field sparrow typically building its nest on or near the ground early in the season, in grass clumps or at the base or shrubs (2) (4) (5). Later in the breeding season, the field sparrow will construct its nest in small shrubs and saplings as the vegetation grows (4) (5). The nest is usually an open cup, made of large pieces of grass which are woven together by the female with thinner grass blades and even hair (2) (3).

When searching for a mate, the male field sparrow begins to sing loudly and continuously, and will only cease this vigorous vocal display when a female has been successfully attracted to the breeding territory. The male field sparrow often returns to the same breeding territory year after year, while the female tends to seek new breeding grounds each season (2).

The female lays a clutch of 2 to 5 eggs which are creamy white with dark spots (2), and are incubated solely by the female for 11 to 12 days (3). Both the male and female field sparrow feed the young until they fledge at seven or eight days old (3).

Although not considered globally threatened (6), the field sparrow has experienced a steady decline throughout its range (2). The main threats to this species include loss of forest edge habitat to development, and alteration of agricultural practices, such as the early cutting of hayfields which alters the habitat suitability for the field sparrow (3) (4).

Natural threats, such as egg predation by predators and brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird, may also affect the field sparrow’s population (3) (4).

A variety of management actions have been suggested to conserve the field sparrow, with a focus on maintaining the natural habitat of this species. Recommended management actions include protecting existing areas of suitable habitat, and avoiding practices that completely remove woody vegetation. Maintaining a shrub-dominated forest or agricultural field edge of at least five acres would provide ideal habitat for the field sparrow, and prescribed burning of wooded areas has been suggested to limit the growth of some vegetation and prevent encroachment, while allowing other woody vegetation to remain (3) (4).

Find out more about the field sparrow:

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  1. IUCN Red List (August, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Field Sparrow, Spizella pusilla (August, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Field_Sparrow/id
  3. Carey, M., Burhans, D.E. and Nelson, D.A. (2008) Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/103
  4. Dechant, J.A., Sondreal, M.L., Johnson, D.H., Igl, L.D., Goldade, C.M., Parkin, B.D. and Euliss, B.R. (1999) Species Management Abstract - Field sparrow (Spizella pusilla). The Nature Conservancy, Arlington, Virginia.
  5. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Field Sparrow Habitat Model (August, 2011)
    http://www.fws.gov/r5gomp/gom/habitatstudy/metadata/field_sparrow_model.htm
  6. BirdLife International (August, 2011)
    http://www.birdlife.org/