Original description: Fringilla savannarum Gmelin 1789
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum passerinus; Western Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum perpallidus
AOU 2 (1895): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum passerinus; Western Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum perpallidus
AOU 3 (1910): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum australis; Western Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum bimaculatus; Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum floridanus
AOU 4 (1931): Eastern Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum australis; Western Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum bimaculatus; Florida Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum floridanus
AOU 5 (1957): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum pratensis, Ammodramus savannarum floridanus, Ammodramus savannarum perpallidus, Ammodramus savannarum ammolegus
AOU 6 (1983): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
AOU 7 (1998): Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
Behavior: Apart from singing males in summer, the Grasshopper Sparrow is a notoriously furtive bird, spending almost all of its time feeding quietly on the ground beneath tall grass with scattered forbs. When startled, it often runs along the ground before taking flight; similarly, flushed birds often appear to move many yards beneath cover after landing, making them difficult to relocate. Winter birds, though, sometimes go motionless on discovery, apparently relying on the varied patterns of their upperparts as camouflage, permitting lingering close views before running off through the grass or flying low over the vegetation and suddenly dropping out of sight.
Breeding birds fly on distinctively stiff, shallow wing beats, with brief passages of gliding, like tiny Upland Sandpipers. Migrants and wintering birds are capable of strong, slightly swooping direct flight, often covering fifty yards or more before disappearing back into the grass. Unlike Savannah Sparrows, flushing birds do not always call.
The song flight is highly stylized, an exaggerated version of the fluttering typical of summer birds on the breeding grounds; it is usually low, often just above the tops of the tall grass in which the birds nest. The “sustained” song may also, like he familiar primary song, be delivered from a perch atop a low bush, fence, or structure.
Voice: The song to which the Grasshopper Sparrow owes its English name was not cogently described for centuries after the bird itself had first been collected on Jamaica. Vieillot seems to have known only the high call notes, which he compared, not inaptly, to those of a Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). Wilson, already unimpressed, found the bird’s vocalizations no more inspiring:
“It has a short, weak, interrupted chirrup, which it occasionally utters from the fences and tops of low bushes.”
That description suggests that Wilson never knowingly heard the species (though it is reminiscent of the Jamaican folk name “tichicro”). Thomas Nuttall’s account of the bird’s singing behavior is less bland and less vague, but can hardly apply to the Grasshopper Sparrow:
“They perch in sheltered trees in pairs, and sing in an agreeable voice somewhat like that of the Purple Finch, though less vigorously.”
Not even Audubon was able to offer a convincing description of a song he must have heard hundreds of times, styling it unhelpfully
“an unmusical ditty, composed of a few notes weakly enunciated at intervals.”
The first recognizable descriptions of this species’ familiar song were provided almost simultaneously by two different ornithologists. Spencer Trotter, writing in 1909, credited Elliott Coues with the first comparison to the stridulations of an orthopteran:
“a humble effort, rather weak and wheezy, but quite curious, more resembling the noise made by some grasshoppers than the voice of a bird.”
But Robert Ridgway’s description of the song as bearing “a close resemblance to the note of a grasshopper” was published in the same year as Coues’s. It is probably impossible to determine which of the two hit upon the similarity before the other, though Coues appears to have been the first to give currency to the English name “Grasshopper Sparrow” for this species.
That name commemorates the male Grasshopper Sparrow’s primary song, a thin, high-pitched, but distinctive phrase beginning with two or three abrupt ticking notes and ending with a thin, hissing rapid tremolo; its high pitch and low volume make it hard for many human ears to hear at any distance. Often heard at night on the breeding grounds, the song can be confused with that of a Savannah Sparrow, but the Grasshopper Sparrow’s song is briefer, with more sharply separated introductory notes and a single, much dryer and less broadly modulated concluding trill; in pattern, but by no means in volume or tone, the Grasshopper’s song resembles some Eastern Towhee vocalizations, while the Savannah Sparrow’s can be thought of as sharing the Seaside Sparrow’s descending fricatives: the Grasshopper sings a simple, dry, thin tik tip tzeee, the Savannah a more complex, more resonant, broader tip tip tip dzdhzdhzh zhzh.
Male Grasshopper Sparrows also have a second, less frequently heard song, uttered both perched and in a faintly ridiculous, stiff-winged song flight. This “sustained song,” which can be given separately or immediately following a performance of the simple, primary song, is a sustained reeling series of squeaky whirring notes; some notes have the pizzicato quality of an American Woodcock’s sky song, while others may recall the musical whines of a Common Yellowthroat or the buzzes of a Clay-colored Sparrow. That eclectic combination and the length of the song—up to fifteen seconds—are distinctive.
Both members of a mated pair also sing a short trill; the male’s trill is longer and descending, while the female’s weaker, shorter song lacks that descending conclusion.
The most frequently heard calls of this species are high, fine, and insect-like, usually faintly stuttering: d’d’dit. There are also a bright, clear, evenly pitched tsee, and a sotto voce tip.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult Ammodramus savannarum perpallidus: Narrow tail feathers dusky with narrow paler edges, outer rectrices somewhat paler overall; all tail feathers nearly the same length, or the outermost slightly shorter. Upper tail coverts and rump dusky gray with rusty or sooty spots and streaks. Feathers of back with dark gray centers, grayish buffy to dull rusty edges, creating complex pattern of streaks and spots. Primaries brown with light buffy edges, secondaries brown with buffy edges and pale gray tips. Tertials blackish to dark gray with dull brownish white edges and tips. Greater coverts broadly gray with darker centers and extensive dull white tips, forming whitish wing bar; median coverts gray with darker shaft streaks and whitish edges and tips, forming whitish wing bar. Lesser coverts and marginal coverts of under wing yellow, often forming conspicuous “flash” at bend of closed wing. Nape grayish with fine reddish streaks.
Under tail coverts, vent, and belly dull whitish; flanks with grayish buff wash. Throat and, especially, breast dull buffy, brightest in fresh, fall plumage; a few faint darker spots sometimes on breast sides. Throat separated from barely distinguishable buffy jaw stripe by extremely fine blackish lateral throat stripe.
Crown blackish with broad, well-defined buffy white median stripe. Brown-buff ear coverts bordered above behind eye by very fine black line, with blackish spot at rear. Very broad creamy supercilium becomes yellow above creamy buffy lore.
Sturdy tarsus and toes pink. Long, large bill swollen at base; lower mandible pinkish, upper mandible brown with pinkish edges and tip.
Juvenile Ammodramus savannarum perpallidus: Narrow tail feathers dusky with narrow paler edges, outer rectrices somewhat paler overall; all tail feathers nearly the same length, or the outermost slightly shorter. Upper tail coverts and rump dusky with sooty spots and streaks. Feathers of back dusky with dull buff and pale grayish edges. Primaries brown with light buffy edges, secondaries brown with buffy edges and pale gray tips. Tertials blackish to dark gray with dull brownish white edges and tips. Greater coverts broadly gray with darker centers and dull buffy to white tips, forming wing bar; median coverts gray with darker shaft streaks and buffy to whitish edges and tips, forming wing bar. Lesser coverts and marginal coverts of under wing buffy. Nape pale buffy grayish with dusky streaks.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, flanks, breast, and throat dull whitish with sparse dark streaks heaviest on breast.
Crown dusky with broad, poorly defined grayish median stripe streaked dusky brown. Brown-buff ear coverts streaked dusky brown. Diffuse supercilium buffy over entire length.
Sturdy tarsus and toes pink. Long, large bill swollen at base; lower mandible pinkish brown, upper mandible blackish with paler edges and tip.
Length 107-130 mm (4.2-5.1 inches)
Wing 58-62 mm (2.3-2.4 inches)
Tail 43-51 mm (1.7-2.0 inches)
Mass 17 g