Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii)

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Henslow's sparrow perched between branches
IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened NEAR
THREATENED

Top facts

  • Henslow’s sparrow is a small, inconspicuous bird, and produces a feeble hiccup-like call.
  • A migratory species, Henslow’s sparrow winters in some south-easterly states of the USA, and travels to more north-easterly states in the summer to breed.
  • Henslow’s sparrow is typically found in tall, dense grassland, including swamps and tallgrass prairies.
  • One of the main threats to Henslow’s sparrow is the destruction of its grassland habitat.
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Henslow’s sparrow fact file

Henslow’s sparrow description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEmberizidae
GenusAmmodramus (1)

Named after John Stevens Henslow, friend and mentor of Charles Darwin (2) (3), Henslow's sparrow is a small, secretive and inconspicuous bird (4) (5). With little obvious difference in appearance between the two sexes (4), this species is characterised by its large, flat head, heavy beak and short, pointed tail (3) (4) (5).

The head and neck of Henslow’s sparrow are olive-green (4) (5) (6), with blackish stripes patterning the crown (6). The wings and upperparts of this species are mostly brown to reddish-brown (4) (5) (6) and are marked with black streaks and narrow whitish fringes to the feathers (6). Henslow’s sparrow has a white or buffy chest, and is finely streaked across the breast and flanks (4) (5) (6). The bill is grey (4).

The juvenile Henslow’s sparrow is similar to the adult but has less distinct markings on its head, is duller in colour, and lacks the streaks on the chest (3) (6).

Due to the shy and reclusive nature of Henslow’s sparrow it is difficult to spot in the wild. Even its song can often be overlooked (3), as it is a simple, insect-like (3) (7) and tinny call, which has been described as being a feeble hiccupping sound (3) (5).

Size
Length: 11 - 13 cm (2)
Wingspan: c. 20 cm (2)
Weight
10 - 15 g (2) (3)
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Henslow’s sparrow biology

Little is known about the behaviour of Henslow's sparrow, but it is thought to be a ground forager (3), feeding mainly on insects such as grasshoppers and beetles (3) (4). Adults may also eat the seeds of grasses and of sedges, although the young are fed almost exclusively on insects (4).

Predators of adult Henslow's sparrows are usually large birds of prey, such as harriers or hawks, whereas snakes and mammals are thought to pose the greatest risk to chicks and nestlings (4).

Henslow’s sparrow is monogamous, breeding in colonies in large fields (4). This species typically nests on the ground, laying between three and five eggs per clutch (4) in a loosely woven bowl of dry grass (3). The nest is often built at the base of a clump of grass and is lined with finer grasses (4). The eggs of Henslow’s sparrow are glossy white and speckled (3), and are incubated for 11 days, starting from when the last egg is laid. Henslow’s sparrow chicks appear to fledge and become independent at around nine or ten days of age. As well as the risk of predation by snakes and mammals, brood parasitism by cowbirds is also a problem for Henslow’s sparrow, although a relatively infrequent one (4).

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Henslow’s sparrow range

Henslow's sparrow is generally found in the east-central United States, wintering in more south-easterly states, from eastern Texas to North Carolina and Florida (3) (7). In the summer, this species moves to more north-easterly states to breed, from Kansas and Wisconsin to New York (3), reaching as far as south-eastern Canada (6).

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Henslow’s sparrow habitat

Originally, Henslow's sparrow was found in both the central prairies of the United States and the coastal marshes of the Atlantic Coast (3) (7), in habitats including swamps, salt marshes, tallgrass prairies and meadows. However, following the decline of these native habitats, this species has moved into additional sites such as areas of cultivated grassland (3).

During the breeding season, Henslow’s sparrow generally favours tall, dense grassland (3) (7) (8) (9) with a thick litter layer in which to hide nests (3) (8), and can even be found on hayfields and reclaimed strip mine sites which have been planted with grasses (7) (9). Breeding habitats for this bird tend to be within large, flat and damp areas with few or no trees, although forbs are often present, and are used by Henslow’s sparrow as perches upon which to sing (3).

Over the winter, Henslow's sparrow is found in habitats relatively similar to those it breeds in, although they may be much smaller than its breeding sites (4) and do not require a thick litter layer or abundant standing dead plant material (4) (8). Henslow’s sparrow is also known to winter in dense cover within the pine savannah in the south of its range (5) (8) (9), often associating with longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) (4) (8). This species demonstrates a preference for recently burned areas on its wintering grounds (8), and dense grasslands and the edges of bogs are also suitable winter habitats for this bird (4).

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Henslow’s sparrow status

Henslow’s sparrow is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Henslow’s sparrow threats

One of the main threats to Henslow's sparrow is the destruction of its grassland breeding habitat (4) (7) (8), be it through conversion to agriculture and pine plantations or the draining of wetlands (8). The use of faster-growing hay has also meant that harvesting occurs earlier and more frequently, actively destroying the ground nests of grassland-nesting birds such as Henslow’s sparrow (4). In addition, this species is known to be vulnerable to pesticide exposure (9).

The loss of winter habitat is also affecting Henslow's sparrow (4) (7) (9), though not as greatly. In particular, it is being affected by the conversion of grassland for intensive grazing and the suppression of the burning of longleaf pine forests (4) (9).

Habitat fragmentation is also a significant threat to Henslow's sparrow due to this species preferring to breed in large areas of continuous habitat (4).

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Henslow’s sparrow conservation

Henslow’s sparrow is found in several protected sites within its range, including Apalachicola National Forest in Florida and Big Oaks National Wildlife Refuge in Indiana (7) (9). However, many of these areas are protected primarily for the conservation of other species. For instance, Henslow’s sparrow has responded indirectly to efforts to preserve the Mississippi sandhill crane (Grus canadensis pulla) in Mississippi. However, in Missouri and Illinois the methods of conservation in place for the greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) are not necessarily beneficial to Henslow’s sparrow (4).

Henslow's sparrow breeds best in large plots of grassland within an even larger matrix of similar habitats, and the Partners in Flight ‘Bird Conservation Area’ management plan tries to maintain such conditions. So far, Henslow's sparrow has responded positively to these efforts (4).

Several other conservation efforts are in place for this species, including mowing, harvesting and haying at appropriate times of the year, once the birds have finished breeding. The removal of tree-lines, hedgerows and fences to reverse the effects of habitat fragmentation is also carried out, although such actions must be weighed against the loss of habitat for other species that may use these areas for cover, breeding or perching (4). Rotational grazing and prescribed burning of grassland are also methods of habitat management which could help to conserve Henslow’s sparrow (4) (9).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about Henslow’s sparrow:

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Authentication

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:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Brood parasitism
When an animal lays its eggs in the nests of members of its own or other species, and the host then raises the young as its own.
Forb
Any herbaceous (non-woody) flowering plant that is not a grass.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2013)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Henslow’s sparrow (June, 2013)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Henslows_Sparrow/id
  3. Herkert, J.R., Vickery, P.D. and Kroodsma, D.E. (1997) Henslow’s sparrow (Ammodramus henslowii). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/672/
  4. Burhans, D.E. (2002) Conservation Assessment - Henslow’s Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii. North Central Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, St. Paul, Minnesota.
  5. Peterson, R.T. and Peterson, V.M. (2002) Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.
  6. Byers, C., Olsson, U. and Curson, J. (1995) Buntings and Sparrows: A Guide to the Buntings and North American Sparrows. A&C Black Publishers, London.
  7. Wells, J.V. (2010) Birder's Conservation Handbook: 100 North American Birds at Risk. Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
  8. BirdLife International - Henslow’s sparrow (June, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=8994
  9. Lebbin, D.J., Parr, M.J. and Fenwick, G.H. (2010) The American Bird Conservancy Guide to Bird Conservation. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
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Image credit

Henslow's sparrow perched between branches  
Henslow's sparrow perched between branches

© Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
159 Sapsucker Woods Road
Ithaca
NY 14850
United States of America
Tel: +1 (607) 254-1114
chickadee.erickson@gmail.com
http://www.twinbeaks.blogspot.com

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