The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan


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Sparrows, Native

White-throated sparrow.
Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Native sparrows belong to the family Emberizidae. This family contains about 320 species; most of these are New World, but there are also species in Africa and Eurasia. Their conical bills aid in removing the husks of the hard grass and forb seeds that make up their winter diet. During the breeding season they add insects to their diet and that of their young. Their plumage tends to browns, although some are more colourful. Thirty-one species have been confirmed for the province, making it the second largest family after the ducks. They are migratory.

Many native sparrows are common in Saskatchewan, but some species are hard to identify unless they produce their distinctive songs. There are provincial records for twenty-one of the thirty-two species that occur in North America, with the notable absence of Aimophila, which has five species on the continent. Amphispiza is also absent, except for one recorded visit by the black-throated sparrow (A. bilineata) in 1991. Most of the native sparrows in Saskatchewan nest in small Trees or shrubs, either on low branches or on the ground. Species that prefer open, grassland habitats build well-concealed nests in existing or scraped-out depressions. During the nesting period, adult birds eat mostly Spiders, insects, and grass and forb seeds; but many species feed their young a diet consisting entirely of insects. After breeding, some species migrate only as far as the central or southern USA, while others spend the winter in northern or central Mexico.

All but one of the small (13-14 cm in length) native sparrows in Saskatchewan are members of the genus Ammodramus. The grasshopper sparrow (A. savannarum) and Baird's sparrow (A. bairdii) have similar breeding ranges, preferring to nest in lightly grazed parts of the Grasslands and Aspen Parkland. Le Conte's sparrow (A. leconteii) and the sharp-tailed sparrow (A. caudacutus) both breed in wet meadows and bog edges in boreal and parkland areas; but Le Conte's prefers drier conditions and is more widespread. The species with the widest range in this group is the savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), which nests in pastures, wet meadows, and open, forested habitats.

Most of the mid-sized (14-16 cm) native sparrows that have been observed in Saskatchewan belong to Spizella or Melospiza. Species with restricted breeding ranges include the American tree sparrow (S. arborea), which breeds in the extreme northeast corner, and Brewer's sparrow (S. breweri), which nests in shrubby habitats in the southwest. Lincoln's sparrow (M. lincolnii) and the swamp sparrow (M. georgiana) can be found nesting in shrubby marshes across subarctic and boreal areas, while the clay-coloured sparrow (S. pallida) and the Vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) are common throughout the Grasslands and Aspen Parkland. Widespread species include the chipping sparrow (S. passerina), which breeds in urban areas, farmsteads, and Forests, and the song sparrow (M. melodia), which prefers to nest in wooded habitats close to water. The last mid-sized species on record is the field sparrow (S. pusilla), considered a regular non-breeder that probably nests in the southeast.

The largest native sparrows that have been observed in Saskatchewan are 17-19 cm in length; most are members of Zonotrichia. Three species are regular breeders in boreal areas and include the white-throated sparrow (Z. albicollis), the white-crowned sparrow (Z. leucophrys), and the fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). This group also includes Harris' sparrow (Z. querula), which breeds in the extreme northeast corner of the province, the lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus), which prefers dry grassland with scattered trees and shrubs, and the golden-crowned sparrow (Z. atricapilla), a rare visitor associated with montane thickets and shrubs.

Other members of the family which occur in the province are the towhees, junco, and longspurs. The black, white and chesnut-coloured spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is the common towhee of the province, nesting in shrubby habitats in the grasslands and parklands. It and the Eastern towhee (P. erythrophthalmus), which nests in the lower Qu'Appelle Valley, used to be considered a single species, the rufous-sided towhee. The green-tailed towhee (P. chlorurus) is a rare visitor. The little dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a common migrant through the province and a summer resident of the forests, either in the north or in the Cypress Hills. Juncos have several plumages, but all have the distinctive white outer-tail feathers seen in flight.

The longspurs and snow buntings are Birds of open habitats. These small birds are hard to see as they move through the dead grasses, camouflaged except for the strongly marked head and chests of the breeding males. The chesnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus) is a common nester in the grasslands and grassed areas of the parklands. McCown's longspur (C. mccownii) is more localized to the shortgrass Prairies of the southwest, but does occur in other grasslands to the east. The Lapland longspur (C. lapponicus) is a common transient on its way to its breeding ground in the Arctic, and occurs in large flocks which may contain thousands of birds. Smith's longspur (C. pictus), which is also seen as a transient, is much less common. The snow bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), another Arctic nester, is seen only as a winter visitant throughout the province and may occur in large flocks of white-bellied, brown-backed birds.

Glenn Sutter

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Further Reading

Alsop, F.J., III. 2002. Birds of Canada. New York: Dorling Kindersley.
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