Bird Lore: Savannah Sparrow

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For a migrant, the Savannah Sparrow is pretty much a North American stay-at-home kind of bird. It winters only as far south as Mexico and Cuba and can also be found across the southern tier of states at that time of year. In summer it migrates as far north as it can go and still be in North America. This species migrates through Edmonds. Records for the last several years reflect first spring sightings around the Edmonds marsh in March. Although it is definitely a Washington state breeder, it is not known to breed in Edmonds.

As its name implies, the Savannah Sparrow prefers open areas with low vegetation, such as the tundra of northern North America, grasslands, marshes, farmlands, and scruffy roadsides. It is not typically found in suburban yards, but the marsh and areas around it, as well as grassy, upland portions of Edmonds beaches, are good places to see this sparrow in spring. Superficially, it looks like a smallish Song Sparrow in that is is a streaky bird. Its notched tail is shorter and most birds show a yellow patch between the bill and the eye that you will not see on a Song Sparrow. LeRoy’s photo illustrates the yellow face patch nicely.

The Savannah Sparrow eats mostly insects and seeds. Coastal populations include tiny crustaceans and mollusks in the diet. It forages as it walks or runs on the ground. Sometimes it will forage in low trees and shrubs. Occasionally it will forage like a flycatcher, making short flights to catch insects on the wing.

As part of its courtship display, the male will flutter slowly over the grass with its tail raised and its feet dangling. Males may have more than one mate. The nest is on the ground, hidden among grass or weeds that overhang it. That way, the open cup of grass can be only be approached from one side. There are typically four eggs incubated by the female for 10 – 13 days. The young leave the nest 8 – 11 days after hatching. The young are fed mostly insects for the protein.

The species as a whole is widespread and abundant. Coastal populations are small; their reliance on marshes leaves them vulnerable to loss of habitat.

You can listen to the song of the Savannah Sparrow at this site: http://www.xeno-canto.org/206187.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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