Common Name: Song Sparrow
Scientific Name: Melospiza melodia
(Information for this species was gathered in part by Ms. Christie Geary for Biology 220W in Spring 2009 at Penn State New Kensington)
Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are medium sized (five and a half to six and a half inches long) sparrows with chunky bodies, long, rounded tails, and round heads. Their heads, backs, and wings are reddish-brown, and their chests and breasts are white. They are broadly covered with dark streaks that merge on their chests into a prominent, dark spot. Both males and females have similar colorations although the male is slightly larger than the female. Image credit: Lee Karney, US Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library.
Song sparrows are very common throughout North America. Their year-round range reaches across the entire northern half of the United States with summer extensions into most of Canada and winter extensions down into the southern states and northern Mexico. Within this broad range there are currently thirty-nine recognized subspecies that display significant differences in plumages, behaviors, and songs. In Pennsylvania, song sparrows are the third most frequently recorded species and have been reported in almost every bird census conducted in the Pittsburgh area.
Song sparrows can be found in almost any open habitat. The edges of wetlands and ponds, old fields, shrubby thickets, and suburban yards are common places to find them. They frequently visit bird feeders and are common nesters in sites very close to human habitations. Densely forested sites with closed canopies are habitats generally avoided by this species.
Song sparrows eat mainly seeds, grains, grasses, and berries. They also consume a wide variety of insects and other invertebrates especially when feeding their rapidly growing nestlings. They typically forage on the ground for food and are frequent visitors to the spilled seed middens under backyard bird feeders.
Mating and Reproduction
Male song sparrows begin to compete for breeding territories in late winter to early spring. Males perform their elaborate, extended songs from perches around a nest site that will offer both protection and also concealment. Most males have between six and twenty-four, two to three second long songs. They sing between five and seven songs a minute (but can up that count to ten per minute during territorial disputes). Once the territories are sorted out, females are attracted to the vigor, complexity, and, possibly, uniqueness of a male’s song. One study indicated that males that use more “learned” song components in their singing (i.e. parts of songs that they have copied from other males around them) are more preferred by females. Mating may be monogamous through a breeding season, but there are many observations of multiple and secretive mating events in this species.
The nest is built entirely by the female although the male may bring some of the nest materials to her. The cup-shaped nest is built of leaves, plant stems, and tree bark and lined with soft grasses, hair, and rootlets. Nest construction takes between five and ten days. The nest is frequently located in a concealed location on the ground, but it can also be placed in shrubs and trees up to twelve feet off of ground level.
The mated female lays a clutch of three to six, greenish-white eggs and incubates them for twelve to fourteen days. Nestlings are fed by both parents and develop quickly. The nestlings may leave the nest after ten days, but are not capable of flight for another 4 days. Once they leave the nest, the male takes over their care and feeding and the female begins to prepare to lay the next clutch of eggs. A female can lay up to three clutches of eggs in a breeding season (from April to August).
Song sparrows begin to learn their complex songs when they are quite young. Quality of nutrition during their nestling and early foraging lives can affect their brain development and influence their ability to learn and sing songs. Young song sparrows pass through distinct learning phases as they develop their own unique song patterns. A phase of continuous warbling is followed by warbling with short, simple song interludes (these songs are learned by copying nearby, adult males). More complex songs are sung as the young bird attempts to establish a breeding territory in the spring, and, finally, each male then develops his own repertoire of adult songs.
Songs sparrow nests are frequently parasitized by cowbirds. The more openly the nest is exposed, the greater the likelihood of brood parasitism. The value of a male winning a territory with an optimal nest site is a direct counterweight to this serious reproductive stress. Song sparrows are also preyed upon by a variety of predators. Domestic cats, snakes, owls, and a variety of hawks eat both adults and also nestlings. Gray and red squirrels, and raccoons also, undoubtedly, consume song sparrow eggs and nestlings. Song sparrows have been shown to innately (instinctively) recognize some predators (like hawks and owls) but rely on experience (learning) often via the reactions of other birds around them to recognize others (like cats).