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