Bird Lore: Harris’s Sparrow

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Harris’s Sparrow is a large, elegant sparrow of the Heartland. It is a showstopper with its black bib and pink bill. It is North America’s largest sparrow. It nests only in north central Canada and winters on the southern Great Plains.

A few Harris’s Sparrows find their way to Washington every year and there are two known records of this sparrow in Edmonds. The first was at the marsh in 1994 where the sparrow spent the winter. It did not leave until it had molted into its breeding plumage. The second record bird was found last weekend near the Edmonds Waste Water Treatment Plant office in a flock of other sparrows in its genus (Zonotrichia), including both Golden-crowned and White-crowned Sparrows. The third photo is of the recent Edmonds sparrow.

The Harris’s Sparrow favors brushy areas in winter. Flocks feed on the ground in brushy areas. When disturbed, they will fly up to perch at the tops of thickets and give sharp call notes. The recent Edmonds bird was feeding in the wood chips around the outdoor exercise equipment and would periodically perch in small deciduous trees that are thick with branches. This sparrow breeds were northern forest gives way to tundra, in areas mixed with stunted spruce and larch trees, shrubby thickets and open tundra. Because of its shy behavior in summer, nests of Harris’s Sparrows were not discovered until 1931.

Diet of the Harris’s Sparrow is mostly seeds, insects and berries. Its diet includes more seeds in winter, berries in late spring after arrival on the breeding grounds, and insects during the summer nesting season. It is still cold on the tundra when this sparrow returns in spring, so not many insects are out and available for food. At this point it turns to crowberries for its energy needs. Researchers have calculated that an egg-laying female needs to eat about 675 crowberries to meet her daily needs. It forages primarily by hopping on the ground and using its feet to scratch in the leaf litter.

The male defends its nesting territory by singing and chasing away other intruding males. Pairs form quickly after arrival on the breeding grounds. The nest is on the ground, usually on a small hummock and hidden under a dwarf or low tree such as birch, alder, or spruce. The nest is a cup of moss, lichens and twigs, lined with fine grass and animal hair. The female incubates her three to five eggs for about two weeks. Both adults feed the nestlings. The young leave the nest eight to 10 days after hatching. They are unable to fly for a few more days.

Harris’s Sparrow migrates mostly at night and travels slowly between its summer and winter ranges. It leaves its nesting grounds in early September but does not arrive on its wintering areas until November. It is a species that often comes to feeders. It likes black oil sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn. It may be attracted to a yard with brush piles and other bird-friendly features that provide foraging opportunities.

The oldest Harris’s Sparrow of record was at least 11 years and 8 months of age when it was recaptured and re-released during banding operations in Kansas in 1983. It had been banded in that state in 1972. A group of Harris’s Sparrows is collectively known as a “poll” of sparrows.

Christmas Bird Count records of Harris’s Sparrows on their wintering grounds demonstrated an annual decline of 1.8 percent between 1965 and 2003, which is a cumulative decline of 49 percent. Additional surveys since then suggest a cumulative decline of 63 percent. The estimated global breeding population is 2 million. The species was placed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds Watch List. Causes of its decline are poorly understood. Its restricted range increases its vulnerability to habitat loss. For example, current agricultural practices that favor removal of hedgerows reduces wintering habitat. Logging and other resource extraction may reduce its breeding habitat.

This short YouTube video shows an immature bird singing in fall: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQVQ1xVJ3z0.

— 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.

One Reply to “Bird Lore: Harris’s Sparrow”

  1. That is a pretty sparrow. Thank you for all the interesting information…especially on where one might be able to see the bird.

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