Lincoln Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii

Original description: Fringilla Lincolnii Audubon 1834

eBird range map

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 1 (1886): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolni

AOU 2 (1895): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii; Forbush’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii striata

AOU 3 (1910): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolni lincolni; Forbush’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolni striata

AOU 4 (1931): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolni lincolni; Forbush’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolni gracilis

AOU 5 (1957): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii lincolnii, Melospiza lincolnii alticola, Melospiza lincolnii gracilis

AOU 6 (1983): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii

AOU 7 (1998): Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Habitat: Dense, tall forest is avoided year-round, though birds are often found at brushy woodland edges. Breeding occurs in damp, densely vegetated areas such as bogs and willow thickets. Migrants and winter birds are less strictly bound to wet habitats, but still prefer to frequent heavy low cover in brush, overgrown fields, marshes, and roadside thickets. Migrating Lincoln Sparrows can appear almost anywhere, from the darkest of rural hedgerows to the bleakest of urban sidewalks. Winter birds occasionally join flocks of other sparrow species in such incongruous surroundings as stubble fields, sod farms, and arid desert scrub. Especially at the ever-expanding northern edge of the wintering range, Lincoln Sparrows may visit feeders.

Behavior:Like Song and Swamp Sparrows, Lincoln Sparrows are most at home on the ground in the shade of thick vegetation. They feed deliberately, often scratching simultaneously with both feet and turning over leaves in search of seeds and small invertebrates; wading is less frequent than in the Swamp Sparrow. In the northward migration, Lincoln Sparrows may climb into the lower branches of trees to eat elm seeds or other especially rewarding foods.

When disturbed, Lincoln Sparrows vanish into the darkest , thickest corners of nearby vegetation. The flight over short distances is swift, sometimes accompanied by rapid tail-pumping like that of the Swamp or Song Sparrow. More so than either of the other Melospiza sparrows, which are sometimes more reluctant to re-emerge, concealed Lincoln Sparrows can often be lured out of cover with squeaking or hissing noises.  

Voice: Lincoln Sparrows are usually silent when flushed. Perched birds are not especially vocal, but may give an odd, and distinctive, dry tekt from cover; this “square” call, resembling that of a junco or black-throated blue warbler, is higher-pitched and clearer than the corresponding note of a Song Sparrow, and lower-pitched and much less ringing than that of a Swamp Sparrow. 

The thin, buzzy dzzeet call is very like the call given by the Swamp Sparrow; the Swamp Sparrow’s buzz often seems to rise slightly, while the call of the Lincoln Sparrow remains at more or less the same pitch over its entire length. With experience, this call can be the best way to detect a Lincoln Sparrow in a mixed flock of migrant sparrows.

The song of this species is one of the most celebrated given by any sparrow. Audubon’s account of the song as “a compound of those of the Canary and Wood-lark” is less description than evocation, but it nevertheless captures neatly the high, thin trills and rich slurs that combine to make this species’ song as pleasing as it is distinctive. Sometimes described as “finch-like,” the loud, slow song typically begins with three to five closely spaced slurs, followed by two or three full-bodied trills; these trills are each on a different pitch, but all higher-pitched than the introductory notes. The conclusion is a distinctly lower-pitched, coarser trill, giving the entire song a three-parted lower-higher-lower structure that has been compared to that of a House Wren, or, more extravagantly, to a Cerulean Warbler song as performed by a Cassin Sparrow. Only males sing; Lincoln Sparrows deliver their song from the tops of bushes and trees, but also sing in flight, introducing the song with a series of buzz calls.

Detailed description and measurementsdrawn from standard reference works

Adult, nominate race: Tail feathers dull rusty brown, the central pair with black shaft streaks. Rump and upper tail coverts greenish brown with neat, fine black streaks. Mantle and scapulars olive with sharp black streaks, broader than those on the rump and underside. Primaries gray brown, secondaries variably bright rusty brown, tertials with black centers. Greater coverts deep rust with black teardrops, largest on the inner coverts, and inconspicuous paler tips. Median coverts rusty with thick black shaft streaks and pale gray edges. Underparts white, with distinctly yellowish buffy vent, flanks, and breast band, all neatly and regularly streaked with black. Belly white. Throat white with fine black streaks and spots; separated from yellowish buffy jaw stripe by evenly narrow black lateral throat stripe. Pale rusty crown finely streaked with black on the sides; well-defined gray median crown stripe with or without sparse black streaking. Nape and broad supercilium dove gray. Lore, thin eye line, and narrow whisker mixed black and rust. Clear, narrow white eye ring. Ear coverts olive-gray. Thin, narrow bill dark gray above, duller green-gray below. Tarsi and toes dark yellow-brown.

Juvenile: More coarsely and irregularly streaked above and below. Paler, buffier crown with less well-defined median stripe.    

Length 129-134 mm (5.1-5.3 in)

Wing chord 59-63 mm (2.3-2.5 in)

Tail 54-58 mm (2.1-2.3 in)

W:T 1.09

Mass 17-19 g