a web page by Don Roberson
  • 138 species in the New World
  • DR personal total: 80 species (69%), 54 photo'd

Traditionally, the New World sparrows and Old World buntings were combined to from the Emberizidae, a large family of seedeaters found throughout much of the temperate zones of the world. This has now changed (see below). However, common names like "bunting" and "sparrow" can be confusing: New World buntings are in the family Cardinalidae; Old World sparrows are in the family Passeridae. Once one gets past that, though, members of the Emberizidae are often familiar birds. North America is rich in sparrows, including the colorful Lark Sparrow of the western U.S. interior (left). Lark Sparrow has a lovely, rambling, melodic song.

Barker et al. (2013) produced a multilocus phylogenetic analysis of the nine-primaried passerine radiation in the New World. They found that to maintain long-familiar families [e.g., New World Warblers, Tanagers, Icterids], the Old World buntings must be split from the New World sparrows. This now gives us the family Passerellidae. Yet, as we shall see, it includes a lot of Neotropical species that are not traditionally considered sparrows.

Most North American sparrows are songsters. In the spring in northern latitudes, the air is often filled with their song. Some of the songs are sweet and melodic, including those of White-crowned Sparrow (right). This singing male is of the nuttalli subspecies, restricted to a very narrow strip of dunes habitat along the coast of California. There is another subspecies that nests in the high mountains of California, and two more that migrate into the State during winter. The nominate race only occurs well to be east. Sorting out these subspecies has become an interesting proposition for birders; see my page on this topic. Songs are very helpful, and there has been a lot of acoustic research into the songs of populations of White-crowned Sparrow. It has been proved that songs are learned by youngsters by listening to their neighbors sing, and the complexities of the songs show well in sonograms.

Not all sparrow songs are impressive to human ears. Grasshopper Sparrow (left) puts enormous energy into delivering its song: a barely audible, thin katydid-like buzz.

Song Sparrow (below left) sings throughout the day, but its formalistic set of trills is becomes monotonous. Spotted Towhee, a large sparrow (below right), also seems to put its entire body into the song: a stereotyped trill in many locations, but with distinct local dialects.

Song Sparrow, like White-crowned, has enormous size and plumage variation across North America. A slice of that variation is discussed within a California Song Sparrows page.

Western North America has an amazing set of habitat-specific sparrows. Here are a couple of examples.

Black-chinned Sparrow (left) prefers rocky habitat with sparse shrubs. This is found in some desert canyons in southern California, but in northern California it appears in recently burned areas and breeds only for a few years, until the habitat grows up to thick. Males give a distinctive trilled song that sounds like a dime spinning on a formica table top.

Bell's Sparrow lives in sage communities. The coast subspecies belli (below left) is resident in pockets of maritime chaparral and thicker sage chaparral in coastal mountains. The cannescens subspecies (below right) requires Atriplex sage communities. These populations were split as Bell's Sparrow recently, separated from Sagebrush Sparrow Artemisiospiza nevadensis. They were all once lumped as "Sage Sparrow."

Other North American sparrows have broad ranges across the continent, and much regional variation. Dark-eyed Junco (left) was once split into four species [Slate-colored, White-winged, Gray-headed, Oregon]. These are now lumped because of extensive hybridization where ranges meet, but these taxa are still recognizable in most cases. This one (left) is a singing "Oregon" type junco.

Fox Sparrow (right) has much regional variation and many subspecies. There is talk of splitting it into four species [Red, Sooty, Slate-colored, Thick-billed]. Some of these taxa are recognizable by call note,. The one shown here (right) is a "Thick-billed" type of Fox Sparrow. I have a separate page on variation in Fox Sparrows in Monterey County. Since that page was written, we have discovered a population of wintering 'Thick-billed' Fox Sparrow in Monterey County (below).


While sparrows such as Song Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, and Dark-eyed Junco may be ubiquitous and easily viewed across most of North America, there are a selection of shy and elusive marshland sparrows that take much effort to find. LeConte's Sparrow (above left) and Nelson's Sparrow (above right) both breed in freshwater marshes in the northern center of the continent but they winter primarily in salt marshes along the east or southern coasts. Both are rare vagrants in California coastal marshes where these photos were taken.

Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis is another common and widespread New World sparrow, but the race rostratus breeds only in the the delta of the Colorado River, Baja California. In fall and winter, it disperses and occurs in small numbers in coastal southern California and at the Salton Sea, where it sneaks around in salt marshes. There have been suggestions for years that it should be elevated to a separate species, Large-billed Sparrow P. rostratus (right) but the split has not yet occurred. It was just recently found farther north in central California coastal salt marshes (this photo). Watch for the bird and the 'split' in the future.

There are New World sparrows in the Neotropics, and only now are the parameters becoming clear. There are a few sparrows, including the ubiquitous Rufous-collared Sparrow (right) that ranges from Central America down through the Andean spine of South America. Mexico has an extensive set of sparrow.

Some specialized emberizids in montane Costa Rica and western Panama include the well-named Yellow-thighed Finch (below left), shown here eating berries.

Initial genetic data (Burns et al. 2002, Yuri & Mindell 2002) indicated the genus Chlorospingus was not a member of the Thraupidae, and more recent research suggests that it best handled as a member of the New World sparrows (Klicka et al. 2007). Bush-tanagers travel in small active flocks in Neotropical mountains. There are a couple of species in South America, and several in Central America, including Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager (below right).

Another set of Neotropical species within this family are brushfinches: 10 species in genus Arremon and 20 species in Atlapetes. These genera are not each other's closest relatives so in a checklist the two sets of brushfinches are separated by sequences of other sparrows. Yellow-breasted Brushfinch (above) is a member of the Atlapetes brushfinches, secretive and mostly ground-dwelling sparrows. Its Andean range extends from Colombia through Peru.

New World sparrows are a significant component of bird life in the Nearctic. Each year wintering Golden-crowned Sparrows Zonotrichia atricapilla arrive in September at my backyard feeder, and linger to late April. Each year rarer sparrows appear as well, usually briefly. The rarest sparrow so far was this Green-tailed Towhee (below) that spent the winter here in 2002–2003. Rita nicknamed it "Pipilo" and we checked on it daily. During its last week it was in full song before departing.


Photos: The Lark Sparrow Psophia crepitans at Junglaven, Venezuela, in March 2007. The 'Nuttall's' White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli was on the Pacific Grove seashore, California, on 7 Apr 2010. The nominate race Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum was singing at Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland, on 16 June 2009. The Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia was at Moss Landing 6 Apr 2010. The singing Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus was at Big Sur R. mouth, California, 29 May 2010. The Black-chinned Sparrow Spizella atrogularis was at Chews Ridge on 3 June 1984. The 'belli' Bell's Sparrow Artemisiospiza belli belli was at Ft. Ord, Monterey Co., California, on 21 Apr 2009. The 'cannescens' Bell's Sparrow A. b. cannescens was in Carrizo Plains National Monument, California, on 28 Mar 2010. My local race of Oregon Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis pinosus was at Arroyo Seco, California, on 24 July 2006. The 'Thick-billed' Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca megarhyncha was at Kings Canyon Nat'l Park, California, on 12 May 2002, while the wintering individual was near Cone Peak, Monterey County, California, on 17 Jan 2015. The vagrant LeConte's Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii was at Abbotts Lagoon, Marin Co., California, on 9 Jan 2015; the vagrant Nelson's Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni was on Elkhorn Slough, Monterey Co., California, on 4 Jan 2015. The 'Large-billed' Savannah Sparrow Passerculus [sandwichensis] rostratus was at Moss Landing, Monterey Co., on 12 Dec 2015. The Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis was at Savegre, Costa Rica, on 23 Dec 2007; the Yellow-thighed Finch Pselliophorus tibialis and Sooty-capped Bush-Tanager Chlorospingus pileatus were photographed there the next day. The Yellow-breasted Brushfinch Atlapetes latinuchus was at Huembo Reserve, Peru, on 24 Nov 2014. The Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus was digiscoped in my Pacific Grove backyard, California, on 3 Feb 2003.

      All photos © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.

Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" that covers all of the Passerellidae but the Handbook of the Birds of the World account (Rising 2011) did so, in a very expansive Emberizidae (326 species!) that included many groups (including many finches and seedeaters) now more properly placed among tanagers [Thraupidae]. This account is full of wonderful photos. Further, there are two books that cover a fair portion of the family:

Byers, Clive, Jon Curson, and Urban Olsson. 1995. Sparrows and Buntings.

This book is structured like a standard "family book" of the period, with color plates in front and text in back. The odd subtitle is "A Guide to the Sparrows and Buntings of North America and the World." I say "odd" since "buntings of North America" are not covered (e.g., Indigo Bunting et al.). Rather, the subtitle should have been "Guide to Nearctic Sparrows and Palearctic Buntings." The buntings of the Old World are all included, but the only Neotropical sparrows are of Nearctic genera. Also included are longspurs and Snow Bunting, now assigned to a separate family. The maps are in the text, not with the plates. The plates are okay, and quite nice for a quick look-through of sparrows and buntings, but do not really look like the birds I know, such as California Towhee. Worse, the attempt to show geographic variation in Fox Sparrow and Song Sparrow does not match the subspecies attempted, except in the most basic way. The text is also okay, but not thorough, and did not really cover the difficult i.d. points in North America. As the authors are all European, I assume that the text on Old World birds is much better.

Rising, James D., and David D. Beadle. 1996.
A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada.

This thinnish volume from Academic Press was quite good for its decade. It covers only the sparrows of the U.S. and Canada (plus longspurs and Snow/McKay's buntings, now it a different family), with color plates in the back, and text (with maps) in the front. I like some of Beadle's artwork, but again the California/Canyon Towhees are not that good. The attempt to capture variation in plumage, size & shape in Song and Fox Sparrows is a bit better than Byers et al., but still not accurate. I do like the text, though, especially for its natural history and taxonomic discussions. Rising is a respected sparrow researcher. However, it is not an in-depth guide to sparrow identification, notwithstanding the title.

Literature cited:

Burns, K.J., S.J. Hackett, and N.K. Klein. 2002. Phylogenetic relationships and morphological diversity in Darwin's finches and their relatives. Evolution 56: 1240-1252.

Burns, K.J., and K. Naoki. 2004. Molecular phylogenetics and biogeography of Neotropical tanagers in the genus Tangara. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 32: 838-854.

Byers, C., J. Curson, and U. Olsson. 1995. Sparrows and Buntings: A Guide to the Sparrows and Buntings of North America and the World. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Klicka, J., K. Burns, and G.M. Spellman. 2007. Defining a monophyletic Cardinalini: A molecular perspective. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 45: 1014 1032.

Klicka, J., K. P. Johnson, and S. M. Lanyon. 2000. New World nine-primaried oscine relationships: constructing a mitochondrial DNA framework. Auk 117: 321-336.

Rising, J.D. 2010. Family Emberizidae (Buntings and New World Sparrows), pp. 428 –683 in Handbook of the Birds of the World (del Hoyo, J., A. Elliott, J. Sargatal & D.A. Christie, eds). Vol. 16. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona, Spain.

Rising, James D., and David D. Beadle. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, New York.

Yuri, T., and D.P. Mindell. 2002. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of Fringillidae, "New World nine-primaried oscines" (Aves: Passeriformes). Molec. Phylog. Evol. 23: 229-243.




  page created 30 Jan 2011, revised 26 Dec 2015  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved