Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis

Original descriptionEmberiza sandwichensis Gmelin 1788

eBird range map

Taxonomic history at Avibase

Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list

AOU 1 (1886): Sandwich Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis; Savanna Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis savanna; Western Savanna Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis alaudinus; Bryant’s Marsh Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis bryanti

AOU 2 (1895): Sandwich Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis; Savanna Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis savanna; Western Savanna Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis alaudinus; Bryant’s Marsh Sparrow, Ammodramus sandwichensis bryanti

AOU 3 (1910): Aleutian Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis sandwichensis; Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis savanna; Western Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus; Bryant’s Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis bryanti

AOU 4 (1931): Eastern Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis savanna; Labrador Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis labradorius; Western Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus; Aleutian Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis sandwichensis; Nevada Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis nevadensis; Bryant’s Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis bryanti

AOU 5 (1957): Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis labradorius, Passerculus sandwichensis savanna, Passerculus sandwichensis oblitus, Passerculus sandwichensis brooksi, Passerculus sandwichensis anthinus, Passerculus sandwichensis sandwichensis, Passerculus sandwichensis nevadensis, Passerculus sandwichensis rufofuscus, Passerculus sandwichensis alaudinus, Passerculus sandwichensis beldingi, Passerculus sandwichensis anulus, Passerculus sandwichensis sanctorum, Passerculus sandwichensis guttatus, Passerculus sandwichensis magdalenae, Passerculus sandwichensis rostratus, Passerculus sandwichensis atratus

AOU 6 (1983): Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis

AOU 7 (1998): Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis

IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern

Behavior: Usually tame but alert in migration and winter, Savannah Sparrows are considerably shyer on the breeding grounds. In the mid-nineteenth century, Thomas Brewer found them “particularly cautious and mistrustful” in the immediate vicinity of the nest, so elusive that he was unable to collect adult birds from the nest, “and only accomplished [their] identification by means of snares.” Indeed, breeding birds are generally detected only when the male climbs a sturdy grass stalk or perched atop a dried forb to sing; even singing territorial birds are easily flushed back into cover.

Migrants and winter birds are easier to see. Savannah Sparrows appear in almost any open habitat, from farm fields to beaches to suburban lawns, where they feed on the ground in loose, shuffling flocks. When disturbed by a human or other potential predator, they may briefly freeze in place or run a few feet before launching into strong flight. Savannah Sparrows almost always call on flushing, a high, slightly scratchy, and very short tsit, repeated at irregular intervals of a second or more.

The same looseness of association that characterizes feeding flocks on the ground is typical of Savannah Sparrows in flight. Flock members may take off one at a time, and frequently fly in different directions, scattering before alighting. Over longer distances, the flight is flowing and swooping, recalling that of a Horned Lark. Wintering and migrating Savannah Sparrows often land in the open in sparsely leafed trees or bushes or perch on tall grass stems or wires to look back at their pursuer, quite unlike the panicked fluttering and barely controlled landings of such other open-country species as Baird, Grasshopper, and Henslow Sparrows, which immediately seek the shelter of the thickest, darkest clump of grass.  

Habitat: Savannah Sparrows nest in areas of denser, taller grass with scattered low shrubs and forbs, including pastureland, marshy grasslands, hay fields, and tundra.

Voice: Males sing perched atop grass stems, bushes, low trees, and fences, or from the ground. There is also an infrequently observed song flight, issued “after force-copulating with neighboring female” or “besting neighboring male in physical territorial dispute.” The precise structure of the territorial song is unique to each individual male, but all can be recognized by the serial combination of high-pitched ticking notes, a broadly modulated, flatulent buzz, and a short, thin concluding trill: tik tik tik brrrzzz bee-eee-eee. At a distance, only the central buzz may be audible; it is “thicker,” lower-pitched, and slower than the more penetrating final trill of a Grasshopper Sparrow. 

Even by the standard of grassland passerellids, Savannah Sparrows are persistent singers, heard through the day and occasionally even at night. Such volubility may be connected to the species’ tendency to polygyny. In good habitat, where food is plentiful and the breeding season relatively long, a substantial portion of males may form pair bonds with more than one female and assist in the rearing of more than one brood; when conditions are less favorable, and in northern areas where the breeding season is shorter, monogamy is more likely. Copulation without the accompanying pair bond is also frequent.  

Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works

This description is based on the widespread and abundant western subspecies nevadensis; similar birds can occur in nearly all populations. Individual plumage variation produces birds that are darker, paler, browner, grayer, and more sparsely or more densely streaked than other individuals in the same population.

Adult: Tail feathers short and strongly tapered at tips, gray-brown with the outer vanes edged whitish-gray in fresh plumage. Upper tail coverts and rump tan-brown with black shaft streaks taking up approximately one third of the feather’s width. Ground color of the back brown-gray; conspicuous streaking above dark brown to black, the back feathers edged with dull whitish, creating regular pattern of black streaks and parallel “white” tracks down mantle. Primaries plain gray-brown, secondaries brighter, deeper chestnut in most individuals. Tertials black with dull chestnut edges. Greater coverts deep chestnut like secondaries, with large black teardrops and pale buffy edges creating inconspicuous lower wingbar. Median coverts brown at base, with large black teardrops and rounded whitish tips, creating inconspicuous upper wingbar. Nape paler gray brown with very fine blackish streaking. Ground color of underparts white, with buffy tinge to flanks and rarely to breast sides. Fine black-brown streaking on breast, breast sides, flanks, and often upper belly. White throat with or without fine black streaks or spots. Lateral throat stripe blackish, narrow but widening at bottom of throat; often very narrow or nearly absent at top. Wide jaw stripe white, bordered above by fine black whisker. Ear coverts pale brown or gray, with poorly defined rear border. Narrow eye ring, most conspicuous below, broken by thin black eye line, often obscure in front of eye. Long, broad supercilium varying from cream-gray to soft yellow, usually brightest above the lore. Brown-gray crown with finely black-streaked lateral stripes surrounding a narrow white median stripe, often unmarked at front of crown, finely and irregularly streaked at rear of crown. Rather slender bill dull pink, with irregular dark culmen and sometimes tip. Long tarsi and toes fairly bright pink, contrasting with white belly. 

Juvenile: Buffier above, with less well-organized streaking. Underparts with more extensive tan-buff tinge, the streaking browner and less regular. Broad creamy-gray supercilium often with more conspicuous black streaks.

Wing chord 65-72 mm (2.6-2.8 inches)

Tail 49-50 mm ( 1.9-2.0 inches)

W:T 1.33 


A Fast and Reckless Driver: The 2019 ABA Bird of the Year

The teenaged hot-roddery of one of Apollo’s most famous sons is commemorated in the generic name Linnaeus assigned to the birds we know as tropicbirds, among them the American Birding Association’s 2019 Bird of the Year, the red-billed tropicbird.

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Though Linnaeus is credited with the name, these daring aerialists had been known to western science since the early sixteenth century. European sailors may well have encountered them at the end of the fifteenth, and surely the early human settlers of tropical ocean islands knew the birds from the very beginning.

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European naturalists were introduced to the red-billed tropicbird by Fernández de Oviedo, who spent more than a decade in the West Indies; a concise version of his Historia general y natural de las Indias appeared in 1526. Oviedo writes that

“On the voyage to the Indies, certain white birds are seen, the size of a dove or larger. They are great fliers, and have long, very narrow tails; thus they call them ‘strawtails’. They are most often seen halfway or a little more on the journey to these regions.”

On his third trip west, Oviedo and his party saw one halfway between Spain and the Canaries. “All the sailors were greatly surprised and said that they had never seen or heard of one so close to Spain…. They are more often seen starting some 350 leagues off Hispaniola and Guadeloupe.”

Linnaeus never saw a living tropicbird anywhere, of course. But Oviedo’s report and the report of his successors over the next two centuries inspired one of the best names the Archiater ever came up with: Phaethon aethereus, the ethereal driver of the sun.


The Advent Bird

Common loon

Remember all those observant birds forming their pair bonds on January 22? One species, the common loon, performs an even more impressive calendrical feat:

While our birds [in central Europe] have had to adjust to the new calendar only once, and have moved their wedding date each year ahead to a single, immoveable day, the immer birds [common loons] of Norway can distinguish the fourth Sunday of Advent from any other day, and this is the only day when they can be found on land.

As a result, the Norwegians call that Sunday “Immer Sunday” or “Ommer Sunday.” And the German natural historian Philipp Ludwig Statius Müller was so impressed with the story that he named the loon, Colymbus immer, the Advent bird.

Merry Christmas!


Anent Possessive Bird Names

Harris Sparrow

A new proposal before the AOS NACC (I like that almost as much as the test we had to take in junior high, the PSAT NMSQT) would alter the English names of North American birds named for people by removing the “possessive” -s from the designation of the eponym: thus, for example, we would once again have the Harris sparrow, the Franklin gull, and the Steller jay, aligning them with the Zenaida dove, the Thekla lark, the Narina trogon, and so on.

Steller's Jay

Each of the arguments the author adduces in support of his proposal is a cogent one. But there is another, even more compelling reason to do without that hypercorrect little letter:

English syntax.

Franklin gull

There is a vast scholarly literature on how names work in English, virtually all of it far too sophisticated for my humble learning. But one thing is clear: a phrase like

*the Franklin’s gull


*a Steller’s jay


*some Harris’s sparrow

is not acceptable in English if Franklin or Steller or Harris is the proper name of a known person. “The Franklin’s Tale” is not a counterexample, as the anonymous teller of the story is a “franklin” by profession, not by name. And “a Steller’s” or “some Harris’s” makes sense only if we mean “a certain person named Steller” or “some guy called Harris,” clearly not what is intended in either phrase.

Birders may have got used to such barbarous constructions. But try it in another context and I bet your language faculty stumbles.

*the Chaucer’s version

*a Verdi’s overture

*some Bocaccio’s novella

Instead, any native speaker will write and say “the Chaucer version,” “a Verdi overture,” “some Bocaccio novella.” Likewise, any non-birding native speaker will stutter when confronted with “the Pallas’s warbler” or “a Scopoli’s shearwater” or “some Pander’s ground jay,” and we would too had we not been corrupted by decades of solecism.

This issue was hinted at, obliquely, in the course of one of the early go-arounds, in the first decade of the twentieth century. Jonathan Dwight was a big fan of the fake genitive, but in his slightly (and uncharacteristically) peevish argument for its preservation, we find him pointing out that

we may say, for instance, either “Wilson’s thrush occurs” or “the Wilson thrush occurs,”

a circumstance whose significance Dwight failed to recognize.

Leon Dawson, the great pioneering ornithologist of the Pacific Northwest, also noted the constraints on the possessive, but he explained them not as syntactic but as semantic. Namely, Dawson claimed that the “genitive” form in -s referred to “the species as a scientific concept [with] no thought of any individual or set of individuals,” while the phrase with the attributive eponym denoted the actual “creatures of flesh and feathers.” Thus,

Baird’s Sparrow occurs in Dakota…. The sparrow is a Baird Sparrow. If he sits on a mullein stalk he is the Baird Sparrow who sits on a mullein stalk.

It’s a nice distinction — in both senses of the word — but it’s overthought, and would have as its result that Centronyx bairdii had not one but two English names, one for the species in the abstract and one for the animals belonging to that species.

The proposal submitted this month to the AOS has already drawn more than its share of withering scorn. But that scorn is inspired by simple inertia, and I have yet to read a truly cogent objection to reviving the practice of the zero-ending eponym.


Greater Pewee December 25, 2006, Anza Trail