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Harris's sparrow

Zonotrichia querula

What do they look like?

Harris's sparrows are the largest sparrow in North America, measuring 19 cm in length. Average mass is 36.4 g with an average wingspan of 26.7 cm. They have a pink bill and a black crown, face and bib. Harris's sparrows look different during spring and summer than they do during fall and winter. In the spring, Harris's sparrows molt (or grow all new feathers) and look brown overall with large black patches on the top of their heads and throats, gray cheeks, and white bellies. These birds molt again in the fall, and are still brown overall but have tan cheeks, and smaller black patches on the tops of their heads and throats.Juveniles look similar to winter adults, but have a white throat with very little black on their heads, and only a black stripe across the chest. All Harris's sparrows feature a brown or black spot behind their eyes. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Sibley, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    36.4 g
    1.28 oz
  • Average length
    19 cm
    7.48 in
  • Average wingspan
    26.7 cm
    10.51 in

Where do they live?

Harris's sparrows live in the central portion of North America. The breeding range includes north central Canada, the forest-tundra habitats of Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories. Harris's sparrows follow a fall and spring migration path between northern Canada and the central United States. During the winter (or non-breeding) season they can be found from South Dakota to Texas, usually staying within the central plain states, but occasionally groups wander as far as Florida, Ontario, or California. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

What kind of habitat do they need?

In the breeding season (late spring and summer) Harris's sparrows occupy mixed forest-tundra habitat in northern Canada. They seek out shrubby vegetation to shelter their nests which are built on the ground. During fall, Harris's sparrows migrate south through central Canada and the United States. During migration, these birds may be found in shrubby habitats near rivers, forest edge, or abandoned agricultural fields. Harris's sparrows spend the winter in the southern central United States. They inhabit all of Kansas, Oklahoma, and most of Texas during the winter months. They are often found feeding in agricultural fields, pastures or scrubby hedges. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

How do they reproduce?

Harris's sparrows are a monogamous species, meaning that one male and one female will pair together to breed. It is unknown whether the same birds pair with each other each year. Males and females arrive together at the breeding sites in northern Canada, and males establish territories shortly after arriving. Males sing to claim their territory. Males and females will form pairs within 7 days after arriving, and nest building (usually under a bush or on the ground) begins in mid June. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

Harris's sparrows breed from late May or early June until August. Nests are built, possibly only by the female, with mosses and other vegetation in a small cup-shape on the ground. Nests are usually hidden under short shrubs. They begin laying their eggs 14 days after arrival to the breeding site. They lay an average of 4 to 5 eggs each year. The eggs take 13 to 14 days to hatch and chicks are born weighing about 3.1 g. Chicks fledge (leave the nest) after 8.5 to 10 days but stay with their parents near the nest for two more weeks. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1992)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    Harris's sparrows have 1 brood per year.
  • Breeding season
    Harris's sparrows breed from late May or early June to August.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    13 to 14 days
  • Average time to independence
    2 weeks

Nests are built either out in the open or under low shrubs with very little lining to keep the nest warm. Only the females incubate eggs and will sit on the nest for most of the day. Once the eggs hatch, both parents feed the nestlings. The young birds are born altricial which means they lack feathers, cannot open their eyes, and cannot feed themselves. They are dependent on their parents to keep them warm and fed for 8 to 10 days until they have grown their own feathers, opened their eyes, and are able to leave the nest. Once the chicks have left the nest, the parents continue to care for the chicks for 2 weeks when they are able to live by themselves. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1993; Norment, 1995; Norment, 2003)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • male
      • 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?

The longest known lifespan in the wild is 11 years, 8 months. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    140 (high) months

How do they behave?

Though Harris's sparrows form flocks for migration, they are otherwise mostly solitary. Older males, or males with larger black patches on their throats are considered more dominant than younger males, or males with smaller black throat patches. More dominant males have access to better nesting sites with better resources such as abundant food, water, or protection from predators. When males group together, they also engage in 'jump fights' to show their dominance. These fights consist of jumping at, pecking, and beating opponents with their wings. However, these fights are usually one-sided as the lower-ranked bird will often quickly shy away. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Range territory size
    200-300 (high) m^2

Home Range

Territory size for Harris's sparrows ranges from 200 to 300 square meters. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

How do they communicate with each other?

The males sing from exposed perches within their own territories. Males sing 1 to 3 song types, and their song is not directed only at females; the males also use song to communicate with each other across territories.

The extent of black "bib" coloration on the throat and breast of male Harris's sparrows communicates dominance to other sparrows. Males with larger bibs, regardless of age, are often perceived as higher ranked than males with smaller bibs. These higher ranked birds have access to better resources such as food or nesting sites. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

What do they eat?

During the breeding season in spring and summer, Harris's sparrows eat seeds, fruits, insects, and pine needles. During winter and migrations, they limit their diet to seeds and fruit. In general, they are ground feeders and will kick at nearby vegetation with their feet until the seed or fruit falls down to ground level. Harris's sparrows obtain water from nearby puddles, ponds, or streams. (Norment, 1995)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

Known predators include arctic ground squirrels and short tailed weasels which are common during the breeding season. Since nests are on the ground, Harris's sparrows are an easy target for these ground predators. Otherwise, northern shrikes and merlins are their main predators.

As an anti-predator adaptation, Harris's sparrows fly up into trees when startled by humans. They duck down to the ground when threatened by other birds. They also produce alarm calls when threatened to alert others. Like all sparrows, these birds have cryptic coloration, meaning their colors blend in well with their surroundings. Harris's sparrows are mostly brown, which camouflages with the color of leaves, twigs, and the ground where they nest. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1993)

  • These animal colors help protect them
  • cryptic

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

Harris's sparrows are used as a host by several species of nasal mites and feather lice. As they are largely seed-eaters, Harris's sparrows likely disperse seeds within their habitats. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • Nasal mites Ptilonyssus morofskyi
  • Nasal mites Ptilonyssus sairae
  • Feather lice Ricinus hastatus
  • Feather lice Ricinus fringillae
  • Feather lice Philopterus subflavescens
  • Feather lice Ceratophylus garei

Do they cause problems?

There are no known adverse effects of Harris's sparrows on humans.

How do they interact with us?

Harris's sparrows live in very secluded habitats, and birdwatchers enjoy seeing these secretive birds when they have the chance.

Are they endangered?

Harris's sparrows are of least concern as they have a steady population size. This likely because their Canadian breeding grounds are very isolated from human contact. Winter habitats are suffering from human development, however the birds have recently become frequent feeder visitors and have found enough food to support the population. As migratory birds, Harris's sparrows are protected under the United States Migratory Bird Act. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)


Mary Roth (author), Florida State University, Emily DuVal (editor), Florida State University, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects.


Norment, C. 1992. Comparative Breeding Biology of Harris’ Sparrows and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows in the Northwest Territories, Canada.. The Condor, 94: 955-975.

Norment, C. 1995. Incubation Patterns in Harris' Sparrows and White-Crowned Sparrows in the Northwest Territories, Canada (Patrón de Incubación de Zonotrichia querula y Z. leucophrys gambelii en los Territorios del Noroeste de Canada). Journal of Field Ornithology, 66: 553-563.

Norment, C. 1993. Nest-site characteristics and Nest predation in Harris’ Sparrows and white-crowned sparrows in the northwest-territories, Canada.. Auk, 110: 769-777.

Norment, C. 2003. Patterns of Nestling feeding in Harris’s Sparrows, Zonorichia querula and White-crowned Sparrows, Z. leucophyrs, in the Northwest Territories, Canada.. Canadian Field Naturalist, 117: 203-208.

Norment, C., S. Shackleton. 1993. Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). Pp. 1-20 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 64. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press..

University of Michigan Museum of ZoologyNational Science Foundation

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Roth, M. 2011. "Zonotrichia querula" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed May 29, 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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