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Savannah Sparrow: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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Savannah Sparrow on the grass

Savannah Sparrows are native songbirds in North America and visitors in other parts of the continent. Like other sparrow species, these are small, steaky brown birds with short tails and a yellow spot near the eyes.

These sparrows are ground foragers and feed on small insects, spiders, and crustaceans. They also eat seeds on colder days.

Savannah Sparrows are migratory birds, traveling close distances almost throughout the year. So, if you’re lucky enough to visit grasslands in summer, these birds will welcome you with a loud, high-pitched song.

Savannah Sparrows are full of exciting facts. Let’s explore more about them!

hummingbird divider Quick Facts About Savannah Sparrows

Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay
Habitat Grasslands
Diet Insects
Behavior Ground forager
Nesting Ground
Conservation Low concern
Scientific name Passerculus sandwichensis
Lifespan 6–7 years

Savannah Sparrow: General Description

Savannah Sparrows love to nest in open fields. These birds are pretty variable, making it difficult for birdwatchers to identify them. The extroverted nature of Savannah birds makes them unique compared to other grassland sparrows.

The Ipswich Sparrow is the heaviest, with about 50% more weight than most Savannah Sparrows. These subspecies are found along the Atlantic Coast, primarily in dunes.

The name “Savannah Sparrows” makes many people believe that it’s because these birds are fond of grassy areas. But in reality, these sparrows were named in the 19th century by Alexander Wilson, a famous ornithologist. He collected a specimen in Savannah, Georgia.

Thus, these streaky birds became popular as Savannah Sparrows. 

Savannah Sparrow: Range, Habitat, Behavior, Diet & Nesting

Savannah Sparrows are an abundant bird species in North America and nearby countries on the continent. If you’re a native, you may have already seen these birds flying in small flocks or foraging on grasslands.

However, they are pretty different from other sparrows in many aspects. Let’s go through each to help you be sure of seeing this sparrow species:

Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

Range

Savannah Sparrows are usually migratory birds flying to medium distances. Some of these birds are residents in Mexico and along the California coast.

In late February, Savannah sparrows begin their migration from Kentucky and arrive on the spring breeding grounds of Alaska in May. After spending some time there, the birds travel for the winter from mid-September to early November.

In spring migration, the male sparrows arrive a week before the females.

Habitat

Whether summer or winter, Savannah Sparrows prefer living in open fields and grasslands with a few trees, pastures, sedge wetlands, meadows, cultivated fields with cover crops, and grassy roadsides.

You may also find these birds inhabiting oceans, including estuaries and salt marshes. If you live in Alaska or the Northern areas of Canada, you’re likely to see these birds in the tundra’s shrubby willows.

Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

Behavior

Savannah Sparrows behave similarly to other grassland sparrows. They walk on the ground and hunt small insects or bugs by running or jumping on the prey. These birds take quick and low flights among grasses.

As soon as the breeding season starts, male sparrows perch on the outer limbs of trees and shrubs. They also fly on the fence top to sing their melodious song and tell other birds it’s their territory. Some sparrows do this to keep vigilance in their area and spot any intruders.

If another sparrow or bird tries to enter their territory, the male starts to flutter by dangling his legs and beating the wings gradually. He keeps his tail cocked and then starts to hover in the air.

Some males may also show a territorial display by raising their wings in a vertical position behind their backs. They may also chase intruders until they get out of their area.

Males also display flutter-flight near females to attract them. They may spend the entire breeding season with one female (monogamous) or mate with more than one. In the middle and southern areas, Savannah Sparrows are not monogamous, while in the northern regions, they are.

In the winter season, these birds come together in big groups and migrate once the weather becomes unbearable for them.

Diet

Savannah Sparrows love to eat nutritious insects, bugs, and spiders, especially during the breeding season. So, they look through grassy lands or along beaches to find some delicious grasshoppers, beetles, spiders, pill bugs, millipedes, and other bugs.

They use their bills to find and pick up insects and then swallow them as a whole. Savannah Sparrows also love the white creamy spittle thing on goldenrod plants. As soon as they spot it, they hop up on the leaves and eat the spittlebug nymphs living in the foam.

When winter comes, these sparrows change their diet a little. They include tiny seeds found in forbs and grasses. The birds living along coastal areas may also eat little crustaceans.

Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

Nesting

Savannah Sparrows prefer keeping their nests hidden in thick thatches and grasses from the previous season. However, their favorite nesting place is a vegetated area.

They build the nest on the ground or over small grasses, salt marsh vegetation, low shrubs (blackberry, bayberry, blueberry, and rose), and goldenrod plants.

The female sparrow chooses the nest site, often next to the male’s territory. This forces the male to guard new areas and fight with neighboring birds to declare the area. 

Females usually build nests in about 1–3 days. A typical Savannah Sparrow nest is almost 3 inches across and consists of coarse grasses for the exterior and a neatly woven grass cup in the middle. This thin-grass cup measures about 1 inch deep and 2 inches across.

How to Find Savannah Sparrows: Birdwatching Tips

Because of their compact size and ground foraging habits, it’s pretty tricky for birdwatchers to spot Savannah Sparrows. However, they are not as shy as other sparrow species and sing and perch in open fields.

If you want to witness the beauty of these birds, here are some helpful birdwatching tips to keep in mind:

Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

What to Listen For

Savannah Sparrows are adorable birds with a thin and high melodious voice. So, the next time you visit grassy areas, listen to a high-pitched “tsss” call. Male sparrows usually sing from low perches, such as fence posts, during summer and spring.

The Savannah Sparrows’ song sounds dry and insect-like. Carefully listen to their songs in grassy areas within the birds’ range.

What to Look For

Since most sparrow species seem alike, how can you know which ones are Savannah Sparrows? Here are a few identification signs to look for:

  • Size and Shape. Savannah Sparrows are about the same size as Song Sparrows. They are medium-sized birds with small heads, slightly plump bodies, and notched tails. These birds also have crown feathers that often flare up to their head to create a small peak. Their bills are thick, usually small for sparrows.
  • Savannah Sparrows are brown from the above and white from the below. They have distinctive crispy streaks throughout their bodies. Their upper bodies have black, and their underparts have thin brown and black stripes. Their eyes also have a small yellow patch.
  • Savannah Sparrows eat on the ground, whether in small groups or alone. When protecting their territories, these birds usually display “futter-flight” behavior. These birds migrate throughout the year.
Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

When to Look

Savannah Sparrows are always on the ground. They perch on low vegetation and fence posts, look for their food, and build their nests throughout the year.

In winter, Savannah Sparrows take cover in tree thatches and grass piles. The best time to watch for them is summer and spring.

Attracting Savannah Sparrows to Your Backyard: Tips & Tricks

Savannah Sparrows prefer inhabiting grassy, salt marsh areas with thick thatches of trees or shrubs. These birds are usually not attracted to feeders but may come to your backyard close to fields.

Since these sparrows build nests in privacy, you’d need to keep a brush pile in your backyard to let them swoop in for shelter. This is more likely to happen in the winter season.

Here are some tips to attract Savannah Sparrows to your backyard:
  • Set Up Birdhouses. Install birdhouses in your yard to offer these birds multiple spots to nest.
  • Place the Bird’s Favorite Foods. Although Savannah Sparrows can find their food on the ground, they’d also appreciate it if you did the hard work for them. So place sunflower seeds, fresh water, insects, and worms to lure these birds in.
  • Maintain Your Yard. Provide plenty of space for these birds to hide by keeping your backyard maintained.
  • Don’t Use Pesticides. Never use pesticides in your backyard. Otherwise, not only Savannah Sparrows, but you may also repel other birds.
Savannah Sparrow
Image Credit: Pixabay

Savannah Sparrow Conservation: Is This Bird Threatened?

Savannah Sparrows are widespread birds. But unfortunately, the North American Breeding Bird Survey states that their populations have declined by 45% from 1966 to 2019.

According to Partners in Flight, the global population of Savannah Sparrows is about 170 million. On the Continental Concern Score, these birds have a rating of 8 out of 20, meaning that these birds are of low concern for conversation.

These birds are not threatened. Their population increased in the early 20th century when humans started clearing forests and opening pastures. After that, however, the sparrows got affected by urbanization and a severe shift in the agricultural industry. In this period, row-cropping for soybeans and corn was favored.

Since Savannah Sparrows feed on crops, they’re also vulnerable to getting poisoned from pesticides scattered in the fields.

Some other factors affecting these birds’ habitats are mowing grassy areas and fields and overgrazing of Snow Geese in the Northern parts of Manitoba.

hummingbird divider

Final Thoughts

Savannah Sparrows are widespread songbirds in North America, and overall, the continent. They look like common sparrow species but are mostly found on grounds. These birds inhabit open grassy areas, saltmarshes, and wetlands and hide their nests under shrub piles.

During breeding, males sing a thin, high-pitched song to declare their territory. They may also sing when attracting a female. Some Savannah Sparrows are migratory, while others are residents.

On your next visit to North America, don’t forget to listen to and watch for these little brown bird species!


Featured Image Credit: Boyd Amanda, Pixnio

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.