a web page by Don Roberson
EMBERIZIDS Emberizidae
New World Sparrows & Old World Buntings
This page is out-dated; New World Sparrows are now split as a separate family. This page will be updated in due course.
  • 151 species worldwide
  • DR personal total: 104 species (69%), 57 photos

New 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.

There 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.

Emberizids 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 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.

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 short scrub.

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 papers.

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.

Western 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.

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.

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.

Fox Sparrow (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.


There 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.

There 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).

Many 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 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 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.

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, 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  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved