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song sparrow

Melospiza melodia

What do they look like?

Song sparrows are mid-sized sparrows measuring between 12-17 cm (5-7 in). They are a monomorphic species, which means that both sexes are similar in size and color. Song sparrows exhibit heavily streaked plumage. They are most easily recognized by dark streaks that form a central chest spot (stick pin). The head is brown with a whitish or grayish crown stripe and eye stripe. The tail is usually tinged with rusty, brown-red colored feathers, fairly long and rounded. The bill is dark brown.

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    19.1 g
    0.67 oz
  • Range length
    12.0 to 17.0 cm
    4.72 to 6.69 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.25 W

Where do they live?

Song sparrows live throughout most of North America, with many living in the midwestern United States. Song sparrows are one of the most common sparrows. There are approximately 39 recognized subspecies living in North America and Mexico.

What kind of habitat do they need?

Song sparrows are usually found in open brushy habitats, mostly along the borders of ponds or streams, abandoned pastures, thickets, or woodland edge. In winter you can find them in marshes, tall weedy fields, moist ravines, and brush piles.

How do they reproduce?

Song sparrows are known to be monogamous with occasional polygyny being observed. Males have not been reported to feed their mates. Males arrive ahead of females on the breeding grounds and begin to define their territory by puffing out their plumage, extending and fluttering their wings, and by singing from three or four main perches. Males announce their identity by territorial singing and aggressive behavior. Females announce their identity by either a high pitched note, or a nasal kind of chatter. Pair bonding occurs on the territory of the male. Females select mates, probably based on the quality of his territory. Males show readiness to mate by pouncing near their mate. They will also pounce near neighboring females while their mates are not close by. Females are more faithful to mates and reject advances of strange males while their mates come to their defense. Females will 'henpeck' their mates by opening her bill at him and giving him small pecks. (Ryser, 1985)

Typically all females and most males start breeding at age one. The breeding season begins in April and ends in August. Females build a nest in 5 to 10 days. The nest is made of dead grasses, weed stems, roots, and bark shreds formed into a cup with rough outer layer lined with finer grasses and sometimes hair. The nest is usually placed at the base of shrubs or clumps of grass. Females lay between 3 and 5 oval shaped, light blue or greenish-blue, spotted eggs. (Baicich and Harrison, 1997)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Song sparrows may breed once or twice during a breeding season.
  • Breeding season
    Song sparrows breed from April through August.
  • Range eggs per season
    3.0 to 5.0
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14.0 days
  • Range time to independence
    18 to 20 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    1.0 years
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    1.0 years

Females incubate the eggs for 12 to 14 days. The young are tended by both male and female for the first 5 to 6 days, although females are more commonly observed at the nest. The young open their eyes at 3 to 4 days, they can fly well at 17 days, and are independent at 18 to 20 days. (Baicich and Harrison, 1997)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

How long do they live?

Song sparrows in the wild have been known to live as long as 11 years and 4 months, though many song sparrows probably die within their first year of life.

How do they behave?

Song sparrows are very territorial. This is the most recognizable aspect of the male. Territorial defense relies mainly on singing and occasionally agressive behavior toward other males. Song sparrows are primarily active during the day and may make small winter migrations from the northernmost parts of their range. They do not typically occur in large groups. (Ryser, 1985)

How do they communicate with each other?

Song sparrows communicate primarily through body language and vocalizations. They have a range of song and call types that communicate different states and attitudes.

What do they eat?

The diet typically consists of seeds, grains, grass, berries, and, on some occasions, insects. Since females need extra, high-protein food to produce eggs they may consume insects or other invertebrates to supplement their diet. Son sparrows also eat sprouting shoots, leaves, flower buds, or algae in the spring. Song sparrows have also been reported to eat crusteaceans and snails in coastal areas.

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • mollusks
  • aquatic crustaceans
  • Plant Foods
  • leaves
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit
  • flowers
  • algae

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Song sparrows are preyed upon by a number of small predators. As adults they are most likely to be preyed upon by birds of prey. As nestlings they may be eaten by snakes, raccoons, skunks, cats, weasels, and other small predators.

Song sparrows are alert and their brown, streaked coloration make them inconspicuous in the brushy habitats they occupy.

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Song sparrows may help to disperse seeds.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds

Do they cause problems?

There are no negative impacts of song sparrows on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Song sparrows may disperse seeds and are important members of the ecosystems in which they live.

Are they endangered?

Song sparrows are abundant in appropriate habitats throughout their range. They are protected under the U. S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act.


Elizabeth Gomez (author), Fresno City College, Carl Johansson (editor), Fresno City College.


Baicich, P., C. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. San Diego, CA: Natural World Academic Press.

Enrlich, P., D. Dobkin, D. Wheye. 1988. The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc..

Fisher, C., J. Morlan. 1996. Birds of San Francisco and the Bay Area. Redmond, Washington: Lone Pine Press.

Phillips, J., P. Butler, P. Sharp. 1985. Physiological Strategies in Avian Biology. New York, NY: Chapman and Hall.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Passerines Part 1.. Bolinas, CA: Slate Creek Press.

Rising, J. 1984. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrow of the United States and Canada. San Diego, CA: The Academic Press.

Ryser, F. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Gomez, E. 2000. "Melospiza melodia" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 23, 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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