Bird Lore: Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow (Photos by Blair Bernson)

The Lincoln’s Sparrow is “[a] neater, trimmer, finer, more gentrified Song Sparrow,” according to nature writer Pete Dunne, “with a buffy whisker and buffy wash across the chest.” It is more compact than the common Song Sparrow. Lincoln’s Sparrow can be seen in Edmonds and other parts of the Puget Lowlands from late September to May. In winter it seeks out moist grassy/weedy areas with some nearby cover.

Diet is made up mostly of insects and seeds. Especially in summer, the Lincoln’s Sparrow feeds on many insects, including flies, ants, caterpillars, beetles, and moths, as well as spiders and millipedes. Seeds of weeds and grasses probably make up its winter diet. It occasionally comes to bird feeders. If a yard has the appropriate vegetation, such as brush or dense shrubs, it may be seen near other sparrows scratching among seeds on the ground.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow breeds in wet meadows, bogs, and riparian thickets in northern and montane areas. It favors areas with low willow cover. In the Cascades, it can be found in summer in subalpine areas mostly above 2,000 feet of elevation. The male defends his nesting territory with song.

The female builds the nest, which is a shallow, open cup of grasses or sedges, lined with softer materials such as fine grass or animal hair. The nest is on the ground, well hidden under a clump of grass or under dense bushes. It is often sunken in a depression of sphagnum moss or other ground cover. The female incubates her three to five eggs for 10-14 days. Both parents feed the nestlings. The young leave the nest about 9-12 days after hatching, but the parents will tend them for another two to three weeks.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow was not named to honor our famous U.S. President. James J. Audubon and his friend Thomas Lincoln of Dennysville, Maine, found this sparrow on an 1834 trip to Nova Scotia. Lincoln shot the bird to collect a specimen and Audubon named it “Tom’s Finch,” in honor of his friend.

The oldest known Lincoln’s Sparrow was a male. It was at least 7 years and 11 months of age when it was recaptured and released during a banding operation in Colorado. Collective nouns rarely get used with this solitary sparrow, but collective nouns that apply to all sparrow species include crew, flutter, meinie, quarrel, and ubiquity of sparrows.

Lincoln’s Sparrow populations are thought to be stable or increasing, despite a few regional declines mostly in the eastern part of its range. Its global population is estimated at 70 million, with 48 percent spending part of the year in the U.S., 86 percent in Canada, and 49 percent wintering in Mexico. Although its conservation status is that of least concern, the Lincoln’s Sparrow is vulnerable to livestock grazing and human disturbance in its subalpine wetland breeding habitat. As are almost all migrating songbirds, Lincoln’s Sparrow is vulnerable to collision with broadcast towers and buildings. It also shows a sensitivity to herbicide applications.

You can listen to the song of a male Lincoln’s Sparrow here: Its call is here:

— 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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