a web page by Don Roberson

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia is one of the most common — and most variable — birds in North America. There were once 52 named subspecies, but after recent major revisions (e.g., Patten 2001, Arcese et al. 2002, Patten & Pruett 2009, Patten 2010) there are now just 25 races in the world. Six subspecies are in Mexico, so in the U.S. and Canada there are now 19 subspecies. These range from M.m. maxima of the western Aleutian Islands — which is roughly the size of a California Towhee (photo, right, showing a Song Sparrow from Attu I. in the western Aleutians compared to a California Towhee) — to birds half that size that reside only in the salt marshes around San Francisco Bay.


A thorough revision of Song Sparrow subspecies by Patten & Pruett (2009) has modified our prior understanding of geographic variation, much of which was previously based on older work, going back to Grinnell & Miller (1944). Patten & Pruett (2009) published new range maps that show the geographic variation in northern California is different than previously thought, and particularly affects Monterey County. The map (right) is now corrected to follow the new taxonomy.

There are now 9 subspecies breeding in California, and 7 breed in northern California. The map shows our 7 breeding races plus the old taxa "mailliardi" in the western Central Valley [now merged into heermanni] but remains a "bird of special concern" in California's protection scheme (see below). Most of northern California's subspecies are resident, with only limited local movements, except that many birds of race montana (breeding in the cold northeast) migrate south in winter:

  • cleonensis in the extreme northwest (Del Norte, coastal Humboldt, nw. Mendocino) — dark green on map
  • montana in north-eastern California and east of the Sierra [montana includes the old "fisherella" that was used by Grinnell & Miller (1944)] — dark brown on map
  • gouldii along coast and Coast Ranges from Mendocino Co. south to northernmost Monterey County (except the S.F. Bay salt marshes). [Race gouldii includes 'santaecrucis' of Grinnell & Miller (1944), which is now considered a zone of merging between gouldii and heermanni] — golden-orange on map
  • local and rare San Francisco Bay salt marsh races: samuelis in San Pablo Bay [red on map], maxillaris in Suisun Bay and the northeast delta [yellow on map], and pusillula in south San Francisco Bay [dark purple on map]. Each is a California taxa of special concern (Shuford & Gardali 2008).
  • "mailliardi" in the western Central Valley from the Glenn Co. to Stanislaus Co., called the "Modesto population" in Shuford & Gardali (2008). This race is not diagnosable, so it has been merged with heermanni; Patten (2001, 2009) However, since it is possible that this Song Sparrow is distinctive genetically, it is considered a California bird of special concern (Shuford & Gardali 2008) — purple-pink on map.
  • heermanni, which is a widespread subspecies from the northern Central Valley and across almost all of Monterey County and down the southern California coast all the way to northwest Baja [it includes the old 'cooperi' of Grinnell & Miller (1944) [cooperi had been the considered the race in the coastal part of the range] — light blue on map.

It may be interesting to compare photos of various California coastal and Central Valley subspecies side by side:

23 Apr 2004 Moonglow Dairy; carrying food to nest © D. Roberson

The nesting sparrow (above) is probably assignable to gouldii . This used to be 'santaecrucis' (Grinnell & Miller 1944) but, according to Patten & Pruett (2009) "it appears that 'santaecrucis' is a name for a hybrid zone between between M.m. gouldii and M.m. heermanni. Because it shares more similarities with gouldii, we merge it with that taxon." Since 'santaecrucis' is merged into gouldii, I guess we can assign Pajaro River valley birds to gouldii, as well as all the birds in Santa Cruz Co., but 'true' gouldii are generally restricted to Santa Clara Co. north through Mendocino Co. (Arcese et al. 2002, Patten & Pruett 2009).

The nesting sparrow (right) is assignable on range to heermanni. The widespread heermanni is said to have more fuscous (dark brown) streaking to upperparts and underparts, while gouldii streaks are blacker, but I have a hard time seeing much difference. The two below in fresher plumage (February) are also presumed to be heermanni . It is basically fair to say that while Santa Cruz Co. & Moss Landing sparrows are assigned to gouldii, while the rest of Monterey Co. birds are assigned to heermanni, they pretty much all look alike.

28 Mar 2009 Big Sur R. mouth © D. Roberson

10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson (a banded bird)

10 Feb 2013 Carmel R. mouth © D. Roberson

The Song Sparrow (right) is "mailliardi," the "Modesto population" that does not represent a diagnosable subspecies but is still considered a "species of special concern" for the moment (Shuford & Gardali 2008). This population is now merged into heermanni , consistent with the rest of the birds in the the Central Valley (Patten & Pruett 2009), but genetic work is sparse. Chan & Arcese (2002) could not establish the the adjacent subspecies (maxillaris) was genetically differentiated from this population. The "Modesto" sparrow looks a lot like our local birds to me, except perhaps not quite so rusty above.

In short, birds from our widespread central California populations (as below) are somewhat dark and dingy medium-sized Song Sparrows, quite reddish on wings and tail, with blackish to dark brownish streaking above and below, with fuscous (dark brown) malar stripes, and a mostly whitish aspect to the underparts (with a buffy-gray wash to flanks). The supercilium and face are mostly grayish. Bills are medium-sized for Song Sparrows.

11 Apr 1998 in w. San Joaquin Co. © D. Roberson

9 Jan 2007 Monterey Harbor © D. Roberson

To summarize, it is fair to say that most California Song Sparrows look alike — both those from the coast and the Central Valley — and that all are rather easily assigned to the "California" Song Sparrow group in eBird.

The panel at right compares coastal populations. An example of the northernmost and southernmost races are in the first row:
cleonensis (D.N.) and heermanni (MTY). Examples of the middle subspecies are in the second row:
gouldii (S.M.) and
old 'santaecrucis' (n MTY).

All these photos were taken between Jan-Apr, when Song Sparrow are getting somewhat worn (e.g., pale edges of upperpart and underpart feathers are wearing off). Song Sparrows are in fresh plumage in fall and very worn plumage in summer, and these seasonal differences are actually more dramatic in coastal California birds than the difference in geography, assuming that birds are at the same state of wear.

This is cleonensis of northwest California (below). It is said to be "dark brown with chestnut streaks" while heermanni is "grayish-brown with fuscous streaks" (Arcese et al. 2002, Patten & Pruett 2009), but that applies to the upperparts. These two side-by-side photos show only the front of the sparrows, and they look quite similar to me from this angle. No doubt some cleonensis are quite reddish, but others apparently are not.
This is the widespread Monterey breeding race heermanni (below). These birds used to be called 'cooperi'. [Museum specimens of MTY sparrows are rather randomly assigned to either gouldii or ' cooperi' (see Roberson 2002)]. Compare this Song Sparrow with one from Del Norte Co., California, to the left, and see how little they differ, even though the populations are over 300 miles apart.

Apr 1978 Klamath R. mouth, Del Norte Co. © D. Roberson

9 Jan 2007 Monterey Harbor © D. Roberson

4 Mar 2006 Arastradero Preserve © Tom Grey

10 Mar 2013 Moss Landing © D. Roberson
This is gouldii in Santa Clara County (above). This race fills the northern California coast from Santa Clara Co. north to Mendocino Co. It is said to be "deep reddish-brown, with an olive cast, with black streaks" above, and crisply streaked below. South of the range of gouldii, heermanni is supposed to be more grayish-brown above, with fuscous (dark-brown) streaks (e.g., Arcese et al. 2002, Patten & Pruett 2009), but those characters may be more useful in a drawer of specimens than in the field.
This is presumably the old 'santaecrucis' (above) which is now merged with gouldii but is actually the intergrade zone between gouldii and heermanni. All four of the photos in this panel were taken in Jan-Apr, and to me these birds all look similar. If anything, perhaps the northern birds (cleonensis, gouldii) have a little bit whiter underparts than the slightly dingier 'santaecrucis' and heermanni.

San Francisco Bay saltmarsh Song Sparrows

Things are different within the Salicornia habitat of the salt marshes around San Francisco Bay. There are three subspecies in these marshes, all of them resident birds, and all of them unique. Each is considered a "California species (subspecies) of special concern" because of the loss of tidal wetlands and the fragmented nature of its range (Shuford & Gardali 2008). The three subspecies are shown below.

17 June 2004 Grizzly Is., Solano Co. © D. Roberson
24 Nov 2007 Palo Alto Baylands, Santa Clara Co. © D. Roberson
This may be maxillaris (above) of the brackish marshes of Suisun Bay and the Contra Costa & Solano Counties delta. The are smallish, dark, and have a swollen base to the bill, "like a McCown's Longspur" (Patten & Pruett 2009). It is hard to evaluate bill shape in this photo, but the tidal marshes of Grizzly Is. are one of its known locales. Arcese et al. (2002) state it is "rich dark brown dorsally with feather edged gray-buff."
This is pusillula (above, at high tide in pickleweed). It is quite distinctive. Like samuelis and maxillaris, it is small, but unlike them it is grayish above and crisply-marked. It is the smallest of all Song Sparrows, and is also small-billed. It is said to be the "only subspecies with yellowish underparts" (Arcese et al. 2002). This is not evident in this shot (above) but in another photo that same day (below) one can see a yellowish wash to the flanks.

This is samuelis (right) of the saltmarshes of San Pablo Bay. It is very small-billed and is said to be "olive-dusky with black-streaked upperparts" (Arcese et al. 2002). To my eye it looks quite similar to pusillula of south San Francisco Bay, but lacks the yellow wash below of pusillula [that yellow wash is difficult to capture in photos and is also difficult to see in bright light, but is apparently very easy to discern in a row of pusillula specimens laid on their backs in a museum tray; M. Patten in litt.]

M.m. samuelis and pusillula are shown next to each other (two photos below, samuelis is first). Compared in this way, pusillula is clearly the grayer of the two, with a pale gray back and rump, while samuelis is more olive-brown to the back and rump. Both have quite slender bills, and both are very small for Song Sparrows.

21 Mar 2013 China Camp SP, Marin Co. © Dan Singer (above & below)

24 Nov 2007 Palo Alto Baylands, Santa Clara Co. © D. Roberson
Bill size can be a good character between these two saltmarsh Song Sparrows and the more typical Song Sparrows throughout the rest of coastal California. Compare the very tiny bills of both samuelis and pusillula (above; San Pablo Bay and south S.F. Bay saltmarshes) with the medium-sized bill of the local Monterey County resident race (below; heermanni).

9 Jan 2007 Monterey Harbor, Monterey Co. © D. Roberson


There are three additional subspecies that breed in California which are not covered on this page. First, there is M. m. montana, the breeding bird of northeastern California. Many of these birds are migratory, and they are covered on the next page on migrants to coastal central California.

The remaining two subspecies breed only in southern California. M. m. graminea is resident on some of the Channel Is. (photo just below). There were initially five named subspecies on the Channel Is and Los Coronados, off n. Baja (some extinct) but now all are merged in graminea (Patten & Pruett 2009]. The Channel Island birds are similar to coastal southern California heermanni, and are probably only identifiable on location.

Dec 1980 on San Miguel I. © Tom Bean/CORBIS

The nesting birds in southeastern California (Salton Sea, Colorado River) are very distinctive. They are overall pale gray with rufous streaks, and are only sparsely streaked on the underparts. These are race fallax (right). The former name was 'saltonis' for southeast California birds but 'saltonis' has been merged with fallax of Arizona (Patten & Pruett 2009).


29 Apr 2009 Hereford, Arizona © Tom Grey

go to
in coastal central California


Photos: All photos © Don Roberson, except those credited to Tom Grey or Tom Bean, and used with permission, all rights reserved.

Acknowledgments: I thank Michael A. Patten and Peter Pyle for in-depth email discussions of geographic variation in Song Sparrows (with photo examples), and Tom Grey, Dennis Paulson, and Netta Smith for providing many photographs to review. Rita Carratello, Alex Rinkert, and Dan Singer also contributed to the discussions that brought this revised page together.

Literature cited:

Arcese, P., M.K. Sogge, A.B. Marr, and M.A. Patten. 2002. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in The Birds of North America, No. 704 (A. Poole & F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.

Chan, Y., and P. Arcese. 2002. Subspecific diffentiation and conservation of Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) in the San Francisco Bay region inferred by microsatellite loci analysis. Auk 119: 641–657.

Grinnell, J., and W.A. Miller. 1944. Distribution of the Birds of California. Pac. Coast Avifauna 27. Cooper Ornith. Soc.

Patten M.A. 2001. The roles of habitat and signaling in speciation: evidence from a contact zone of two Song Sparrow subspecies. Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. Calif., Riverside.

Patten, M.A. 2010. Evolution and historical biogeography of a Song Sparrow ring in western North America, pp. 329-342 in Evolutionary Biology – Concepts, Molecular and Morphological Evolution, Chapter 20 (P. Pontarotit, ed.). Springer-Verlag, Berlin.

Patten, M.A., and Pruett, C.L. 2009. The Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, as a ring species: patterns of geographic variation, a revision of subspecies, and implications for speciation. Systematics and Biodiversity 7: 33-62.

Roberson, D. 2002. Monterey Birds, 2d ed. Monterey Pen. Audubon Soc., Carmel, CA.

Shuford, D., and T. Gardali, eds. 2008. California Bird Species of Special Concern. Studies of Western Birds 1. Calif. Field Ornithologists, Camarillo, CA, and Calif. Dept. Fish & Game, Sacramento.




  page created 22 March 2009, updated 5-17 March 2013  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved