Harris Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

Harris's Sparrow PHoenix February 3, 2007 014

Original descriptionFringilla querula Nuttall 1840

eBird range map

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 1 (1886): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 2 (1895): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 3 (1910): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 4 (1931): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 5 (1957): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 6 (1983): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

AOU 7 (1998): Harris’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia querula

IUCN Conservation Status: Near threatened


Behavior: Audubon’s suggestion that this was a shy bird, “dart[ing] on… too swiftly for me to shoot on the wing,” more clearly reflects the American Woodsman’s failing eyesight than the Harris Sparrow’s usual behavior. Always alert, Harris Sparrows nevertheless permit close approach by humans, when startled usually flying up rather than away, turning to watch the source of disturbance from the top of a tree. 

Most feeding is carried out on the ground, in open areas with short grass near wooded creek beds and fencerows; shelter belts of eastern red cedar are a favored site in winter. Harris Sparrows mix freely with other sparrows on migration and on the wintering grounds, and readily visit feeders to take millet, sunflowers, and even suet; they are bold and assertive towards juncos, American Tree Sparrows, and other smaller birds, and often aggressive among themselves. In April and May on the Great Plains, northbound flocks often gather in elms, hanging clumsily from small twigs to eat the still-soft seeds.  

This species is impressively large in flight, with long wings and tail and steady, sometimes decidedly ponderous wing beats (for a sparrow, as Coues would have said). Flushed birds only rarely call, waiting until they have landed to issue a quiet seep or, more frequently, the familiar cheenk. Small flocks wait until nearly dark to enter the roosting areas, slipping into trees and bushes in low, silent flight.

Males sing from exposed perches on their breeding territories; song flight has not been recorded.

Voice: Harris Sparrows are vocal at all seasons. The best-known call is a loud, cheerful cheenk, fuller and richer than the similar notes of the White-crowned and White-throated Sparrows and less sharply metallic than the chip of a Northern Cardinal; there is also a drier, shorter tink. The thin seep call is longer and more wavering than the short, decisive tzip of the White-crowned.

The song, heard on the breeding grounds, from migrants spring and fall, and on warm winter days alike, is a loud, measured pee pee pee, the notes delivered slowly and well separated by long pauses; the mournful tone resembles that of the songs of the Golden-crowned and White-throated Sparrows, but all of the notes are on the same pitch. 

Early observers repeatedly noted a further vocalization, described rather helplessly by Coues as “a queer chuckling note” and by Seton as “a warbler somewhat like that of a bluebird.” It is impossible to be certain at this remove, but these accounts probably refer to the “roosting call,” a loose rolling chant occasionally heard as winter flocks assemble for the night in dense red cedar stands on the edge of the prairie.

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

Adult: Tail feathers pale brown or brownish gray, the outer rectrices with small paler grayish tips. Upper tail coverts, rump, and lower back tan or pale brown with distinct silvery cast. Feathers of back and scapulars buffy brown with blackish or chestnut shaft streaks. Primaries and secondaries brown to rusty, the primaries with paler gray-brown edges and he secondaries with narrow rusty edges creating a moderately bright wing panel. Tertials mostly blackish, the outer web broadly edged rusty. Greater and median coverts brown, duskier on outer web, with neat white tips forming clear wing bars most of year; lower wing bar sometimes wear nearly or entirely away by summer. Nape brownish or grayish with variable blackish streaks or flecks. 

Under tail coverts pale buffy with fine, usually invisible dark shaft streaks. Vent whitish, center of belly and lower breast white. Flanks soft pale brownish with coarse brown or chestnut streaks, becoming oblong black spots on side of breast. Upper breast with sparse black spots, coalescing into large blotch on center of breast and narrow horizontal line at top of breast. Throat and chin largely covered by irregularly shaped black patch with variable white blotching; lateral throat stripe black, often indistinguishable from throat patch. Jaw stripe buffy in fall and winter, silver-gray beginning late March. 

Crown blackish with paler gray or brown scalloping in winter, solid black beginning late March. Ear coverts buffy in fall and winter, silver-gray by late April. Faint brown whisker divides ear coverts from jaw stripe; sometimes invisible in alternate plumage, when ear coverts and jaw stripe continuously silver-gray. Faint brown line reaches back from eye to chestnut or black “checkmark” between ear coverts and nape. Broad supercilium light buffy in fall and winter, silver-gray by late April. Poorly defined gray or grayish eye ring inconspicuous in field. 

Long tarsus orange-pink, toes brown to pink. Thick-based but long and fine-tipped bill bright orange-pink.

Juvenile: Tail feathers pale brown or gray with whitish gray edges and tips. Upper tail coverts, rump, and lower back brown with scattered streaks. Feathers of back and scapulars dusk black with deep buff and brown edges. Primaries and secondaries brown to dusky brown with deep buff or brown edges. Tertials mostly blackish, the outer web broadly edged rusty. Greater and median coverts brown, duskier on outer web, with white tips forming wing bars. Nape dusky with fine blackish streaks and flecks. 

Central belly white, buffy brownish flanks streaked black. Breast and sides of breast conspicuously streaked black. Throat and chin grayish white with sparse blackish spots; strong blackish lateral throat stripe. 

Head and neck mostly dusky black. Crown feathers black with pale gray or buffy margins, creating scaled appearance.

Length 169-186 mm (6.7-7.3 inches)

Wing 80-91 mm (3.1-3.6 inches)

Tail 77-86 mm (3.0-3.4 inches)

W:T 1.06

Mass 36 g