New World Sparrows & Old World Buntings
World sparrows and Old World buntings comprise a good portion of the
Emberizidae, a large family of seedeaters found throughout much of the
temperate zones of the world. 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. The virtuosity of another inland sparrow — the
drab Brewer's Sparrow Spizella breweri — is even more impressive with a repertoire of buzzes and trills.
is still much uncertainty about the limits of the Emberizidae. Many
species currently (2011) listed as emberizids in checklists (AOU, SACC)
are probably tanagers, and have been
assigned that way in this Bird Family project. This page on the
Emberizidae will focus mostly on sparrows and buntings.
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 formulistic 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
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.
A full set of Old World buntings fill much of the sparrow niche in Eurasia. Godlewski's Bunting (right) breeds in brushy, rocky habitat, often adjacent to forest (this one is using a short fir as a song post). The colorful Yellow-throated Bunting
(just below) has two disjunct populations in east Asia, where it breeds
in foothill deciduous woods: the one in the northeast winters in Japan
(a fairly short distance migration) and the central China population
appears to simply move downslope in winter.
The endangered Jankowski's Bunting
(below) is now restricted to remnant grasslands in northeastern China
(the old "Manchuria"), where it prefers sand dunes overgrown with very
Africa has its own set of buntings, including Lark-like Bunting,
an irruptive and nomadic bird of southern Africa (left). While
Lark-like Bunting retains its drab plumage throughout the year, many
migratory Eurasian species molt out of bright alternate dress after
breeding, and are found in migration and winter in dull colors, making
many of them difficult to identify and the subject of identification
The longer-distance migrants have been
found as vagrants far from their usual routes. A number of eastern
buntings have been recorded in western Europe, and some have also
turned up in western North America, including Little Emberiza pusilla, Rustic E. rustica, Reed E. schoeniclus, and Pallas's E. pallasi. Little and Rustic have made it to California; the other two were recorded in Alaska.
North America has an amazing set of habitat-specific sparrows. Indeed,
sparrows are overrated as an identification problem because so many of
them are tied to specific habitats, and are almost never found away
from that habitat. Here are a couple of examples.
(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.
Sage Sparrow (below) lives in sage communities. The coast subspecies belli (below left) is entirely resident in pockets of maritime chaparral and thicker sage chaparral in coastal mountains. The cannescens subspecies (below right) requires Atriplex sage communities. There is the possibility that they will be split into two separate species in the future.
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 as one species because of
extensive hybridization where ranges meet, but these taxa are still
easily recognized in most cases. This one (left) is a singing "Oregon" type junco.
(right) also 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, but
there are still many unknowns in parts of North America. 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.
are emberizids in the Neotropics, but the exact parameters are not yet
settled. 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.
are also an entire set of brush-finches in the Neotropics, mostly in
the mountains, and 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) 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 Emberizidae (Klicka et al.
2007). The SACC has now shifted the Chlorospingus
bush-tanagers to this family. 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).
current (2011) checklists include a wide variety of seedeaters,
grassquits, grass-finches, duica-finches, sierra-finches and Galapagos
finches within the Emberizidae. Most of these almost certainly do not
belong in their traditional families; Burns et al. (2002, 2004), Klicka
et al. (2000, 2007), Yuri & Mindell (2002). It will all be sorted
out in due course.
Whatever the full parameters of
the Emberizidae, New World sparrows and Old World buntings are a
significant component of bird life in the Holarctic. 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
emberizid 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
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 Nat'l Battlefield, Maryland, on 16 June 2009. The Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia was at Moss Landing 6 Apr 2010. The singing Spotted Towhee Melozone maculatus was at Big Sur R. mouth, California, 29 May 2010. The Yellow-throated (or Elegant) Bunting Emberiza elegans was at Foping Nature Reserve, Shaanxi, China, on 13 Nov 2010. The Godlewski's Bunting E. godlewskii was at Wulinghshan, Hebei, China, on 8 June 2004. The Jankowski's (or Chestnut-backed) Bunting E. jankowski was north of Baichengzhi, Jilin, China, on 12 June 2004. The Lark-like Bunting E. impetuani was near Brandvlei, South Africa, on 7 July 2005. The Black-chinned Sparrow Spizella atrogularis was at Chews Ridge on 3 June 1984. The Bell's Sage Sparrow Amphispiza belli belli was at Ft. Ord, Monterey Co., California, on 21 Apr 2009. The cannescens Sage Sparrow was in Carrizo Plains Nat'l 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. 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 Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus was digiscoped in my Pacific Grove backyard, California, on 3 Feb 2003. Photo © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.
Bibliographic note: There is no "family book" that covers all of the Emberizidae, nor has the Handbook of the Birds of the World
reached this family at this date (2011; Vol. 16 scheduled for late this
year). There are two books that cover a fair portion of the family:
Byers, Clive, Jon Curson, and Urban Olsson. 1995. Sparrows and Buntings.
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.
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.
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.
C., J. Curson, and U. Olsson. 1995. Sparrows and Buntings: A Guide to
the Sparrows and Buntings of North America and the World. Houghton
Klicka, J., K. Burns, and G.M. Spellman. 2007. Defining a monophyletic
Cardinalini: A molecular perspective. Molec. Phylog. Evol. 45: 1014
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.
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.
T., and D.P. Mindell. 2002. Molecular phylogenetic analysis of
Fringillidae, "New World nine-primaried oscines" (Aves: Passeriformes).
Molec. Phylog. Evol. 23: 229-243.