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swamp sparrow

Melospiza georgiana

What do they look like?

The adult breeding male has a blackish forehead with a pale grey median stripe which often extends back as a narrow indistinct pale median crown-stripe. The rest of the crown is quite bright rufous, often with some fine black streaking, and with narrow black edges on the lateral crown. The Swamp Sparrow has a broad grey supercilium and slightly buffier-grey lores and ear-coverts. The eye ring is pale greyish-white. The eye stripe (from behind the eye) and narrow moustachial stripe (reaching to the base of the bill) is blackish-brown, framing the ear-coverts. The submoustachial stripe is whitish, and there is a narrow malar stripe that is blackish. The nape and neck-sides are greyish, with darker fine streaks. The mantle and scapulars are dull rufous-brown, heavily streaked black and also finely streaked with pale straw/buff. The rump and uppertail-coverts are more olive-brown, the uppertail-coverts have broad, well-defined black central streaks. The lesser coverts are chestnut. The greater and median coverts are blackish with broad chestnut feather edges. The greater coverts also have a narrow buff tip. Alula and primary coverts are blackish-brown with the alula having a narrow white edge. Flight feathers are blackish with narrow grey edges to primaries, narrow rufous edges to outer secondaries and broader rufous edges to inner secondaries. The tertials are blackish with rufous edges, becoming buffy-white round the tip. The tail is rufous-brown with pale buff feather edges. The throat is whitish. The breast is grey with a few fine dark streaks, occasionally merging to form an obscure central spot. The belly is greyish-white and the flanks and undertail-coverts are buff, with the flanks having obscure darker streaks. The iris is dark reddish-brown. The bill is dusky-grey with mid-flesh lower mandible. The legs are flesh.

The adult breeding female is very similar to the male and not always distinguishable, but tends to have less extensive rufous crown which is more heavily streaked with blackish. The differences are most noticeable in mated pairs.

The non-breeding adult is similar to the breeding adult but the head is rather duller, the crown is noticeable less rufous and more heavily streaked black, often with a narrow pale grey median stripe. The ear-coverts also tend to be buffier. The sexes are generally indistinguishable, or monomorphic.

The first year nonbreeding is similar to the non-breeding adult but noticeably less grey and rufous on head. The crown has very little or no rufous and the narrow median stripe may be buffier. The supercilium and nape are brwonish- or buffy-grey, not pure grey.

The juvenile is much buffier overall with black streaking on the crown, nape, neck-sides, breat and flanks as well as mantle and scapuolars. The streaking on the crown is usually quite heavy but can be noticeably finer than that on the upperparts. The bill is flesh at first rapidly becoming the adult's. Inside of the mouth is yellow to yellowish-white.(Byers 1995)

  • Average mass
    14.9 g
    0.53 oz
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.211 W

Where do they live?

The summer range of the Swamp Sparrow includes the eastern half of the Northern United States south to Missouri, Ohio, and Maryland, and a large portion of Canada from Newfoundland west to the Rockies.

The winter populations concentrate in the eastern United States from Texas, the Gulf Coast, and Florida north to Iowa, the southern Great Lakes, and Massachusetts.(McPeek 1994)

What kind of habitat do they need?

Swamp Sparrow are commonly found in open wetlands such as cattail and sedge marshes, shrubby wetlands, and other similar habitats. They can be found occasionally in lake and streamside marshes. (MsPeek 1994)

How do they reproduce?

Swamp Sparrows breeds emergent vegetation in freshwater marshes, bogs, swamps, and wet meadows. It also breeds in low swampy shores of lakes and streams and rarely in coastal brackish meadows.

The nests are about a foot above water in low brush, grass tussock, or sedge; often over the water that is about two feet deep. They have a bulky construction foundation, averaging 40 inches in outside diameter, and a smaller inside nest cup, averaging 2.4 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches in depth. The foundation is made from tightly woven coarse dead marsh grasses. The inner cup is made of fine round grasses.

The swamp Sparrow lays four or five slightly glossy, pale green to greenish-white eggs marked with reddish-brown scrawls. Two clutches are laid each year. If a clutch is destroyed by flooding or predation another clutch will be laid.

Incubation is done by the female and lasts 12-15 days.

(Austin 1968)

  • Average eggs per season
  • Average time to hatching
    13 days

How long do they live?

How do they behave?

Swamp Sparrow feeds by wading in shallow water and picking insects and seeds from the surface.

Except during migration a Swamp Sparrow rarely flies more than a few dozen yard at a time and rarely flies higher that a few feet above the grass tops. Their flight is characterized by the tail rapidly pumping up and down. (Austin 1968)

How do they communicate with each other?

What do they eat?

The swamp sparrow is the most highly insectivorous species in its genus. Its diet is 55 percent insect in winter and 88 percent insects in spring and early summer. By late summer and into fall the diet changes to 84 percent to 97 percent granivorous, with seeds of sedges, smartweed, panicgrass, and vervain being the most common sources. (Austin 1968)

Do they cause problems?

There is no specific negative affect to humans.

How do they interact with us?

There is no specific positive benefit to humans.

Are they endangered?

Swamp sparrows are widespread with a large global population size. They are protected by the U.S. Migratory Bird Act.


Jane O'Connell-Devlin (author), Eastern Michigan University, Cynthia Sims Parr (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.


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

Ehrlich, P., D. Dodkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birdes. New York: Simon and Schuster, Fireside.

McPeek, G. 1994. Swamp Sparrow. Pp. 311-312 in G McPeek, ed. The Birds of Michigan. Kalamazoo: Kalamazoo Nature Center and the Sarett Nature Center.

Wetherbee, D. 1968. Southern Swamp Sparrow. Life Histories of North American Cardinals, Grosbeaks, Bunitngs, Towhees, Finshes, Sparrows, and Allies, United States National Museum Bulletin 237: 1475-1489.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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O'Connell-Devlin, J. 2001. "Melospiza georgiana" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 18, 2024 at

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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