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Harris’s Sparrow

This sparrow has gotten its name from Edward Harris, who was an American ornithologist.

Harris’s Sparrows have dominance hierarchies in winter, with body size and the extent of black feathering on the bib contributing to a bird’s position in the hierarchy. Breeding territories are established when the Harris’s Sparrow returns to its northern breeding range in late May or early June.

Harris’s Sparrows nest on the ground, and all incubation is done by the female. Cold temperatures on the breeding grounds require long periods of constant incubation, especially at night when females incubate for about 8 hours at a time.



Description of the Harris’s Sparrow


The Harris’s Sparrow is a large sparrow with black-streaked brownish upperparts, a black face with a variable amount of black on the breast, white underparts, and a pink bill.  Length: 8 in.  Wingspan: 11 in.

Harris's Sparrow

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are heavily streaked below, and first winter birds have little black in the face.


Harris’s Sparrows breed in stunted northern forests, and winter in a variety of woodlands and brushy habitats.


Harris’s Sparrows eat seeds, insects, and berries.

Harriss Sparrow

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Harris’s Sparrows forage on the ground or in small bushes.  When startled, they fly up into the tops of bushes, rather than down low into bushes as most other sparrows tend to do.


Harris’s Sparrows breed in central to northern Canada and winter in a relatively small area of the southern Great Plains. The population is thought to be stable.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Harris’s Sparrow.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

The nest of the Harris’s Sparrow was one of the last North American passerine nests to be found by scientists, and was found by ornithologist George Miksch Sutton in a summer race with Canadian ornithologists to be the first to find one.

The Harris’s Sparrow is the largest sparrow in North America.


The most common call is a loud, rather metallic “cheek”.


Similar Species

  • Other similar sparrows in this genus such as the White-crownedWhite-throated, and Golden-crowned, lack the pink bill and black face, and the white belly of the Harris’s Sparrow.Fox Sparrow
    Color ranges of Fox Sparrows range from very gray to rusty brownand lack the black face. 


The nest is a cup of moss and lichens lined with fine materials, and usually placed on the ground under a shrub or low tree branch.

Number: Usually lay 4 eggs.
Color: Pale green with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-15 days, and leave the nest in another 8-10 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Harris’s Sparrow

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Harris’s Sparrow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



It was on a crisp June day in 1933 among the stunted spruces and the reindeer moss of the timberline at Churchill on Hudson Bay that I made the acquaintance of my first Harris’ sparrow. I was captivated at once by the bold black hood and pink bill, the plaintive, melodious, two-toned whistle, and the shy, gentle ways of this large handsome sparrow of the middle west. A bird of mystery, I was in the heart of its breeding grounds where that veteran explorer, Edward A. Preble, had discovered young just out of the nest in 1900, and where George M. Sutton had found and described the eggs for the first time in 1930. By 1933 not a dozen men had seen the nest and beautiful speckled blue-green eggs of these elusive creatures.

It was a great satisfaction to renew their acquaintance in 1939 when we moved to the heart of their winter range in Oklahoma. Although they migrate through the plains states in enormous numbers and have been banded by the thousands in spring and fall, they are still birds of mystery. Only a handful have been studied through a winter, and none over a period of years. Perhaps it was a designing fate, certainly a happy coincidence, that led us after several years in town, to establish our permanent home on an acreage near Stillwater where Harris’ sparrows shared our lawn and picnic place, our weedy chicken yard, and the brushy ravine that wound through our little pasture. These birds of mystery became our closest neighbors, constant guests at our winter feeding trays, and regular visitors to our banding traps.

From its earliest history Harris’ Sparrow has been surrounded by an aura of excitement and drama. Because its distribution is restricted to the center of the continent, not until 1834 did the eager eyes of science view it for the first time. Harry Harris (1919) relates in fascinating detail how two separate parties of explorers discovered the species within two weeks and a few miles of one another. On an expedition headed westward across Missouri with John K. Townsend, Thomas Nuttall (1840) collected a bird on Apr. 28, 1834, that he subsequently named the “Mourning Finch,” Fringilla querula. On May 13th the same year, Maximilian, Prince of Wied (1841), returning from an exploration of the upper Missouri River, likewise encountered the migrating flocks of these large handsome sparrows in southeastern Nebraska. He collected specimens that he described in his account of the trip as Fringilla comata.

Each of these men delayed publishing his discoveries, Nuttall for 6 years, Maximilian for 7 years. Meanwhile John James Audubon completed the Elephant Folio of his epochal “Birds of America” without this interesting species. Traveling up the Missouri by steamship in 1843, Audubon and his companion, Edward Harris, saw the bird for the first time near Fort Leavenworth, Kans. Harris collected specimens and Audubon, unaware that it had already been discovered and named twice, described it in the octavo edition of his “Birds of America” (1843) as Fringilla harrisii in honor of his “excellent and constant friend.” While the priority of Nuttall’s specific name querula is clearly established, his singularly appropriate “mourning finch” was superceded through usage by Audubon’s vernacular name.

Little was learned during the next 40 years of the distribution or the life history of these elusive birds. Believed originally to nest in the type area, it was soon realized that the birds found there were migrants. The careful work of Wells W. Cooke (1884) established the eastern limit of their range in the United States and its center roughly paralleling the 96th meridian, but its western and southern boundaries remained vague. The wealth of faunal and local studies of the ensuing three-quarters of a century have defined the normal winter range more precisely and showed stragglers dispersing widely into almost every state of the Union.

The summer home of the Harris’ sparrow remained mere conjecture until Edward A. Preble (1902) found it breeding at Churchill. Preble (1908b) also found it in 1903 along the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake “in a habitat precisely similar to its chosen nesting ground on Hudson Bay. All indications therefore point to the conclusion that its principal breeding grounds are in the strip of stunted timber extending for 800 miles between Hudson Bay and Great Bear Lake, along the northern border of the transcontinental forest.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1908) verified Preble’s conclusions when he found the species common from Great Slave Lake northward to the edge of the Barren Grounds, and discovered a nest with young almost ready to leave on August 5th. Other explorers in the North have added testimony, but without extending the birds’ known breeding range.

Spring: During spring migration Harris’ sparrows spread out over a wide area that includes most of the central United States. The species then occurs regularly, though sparingly, from northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin to eastern Colorado, Montana, and eastern Alberta east of the Continental Divide. William Youngworth (1959) notes that these birds were found originally only in the upper Missouri River valley, but that during the past 60 years they have spread eastward and are now regular, though uncommon, migrants down the upper Mississippi River valley as well.

The northward movement begins in the southern parts of the winter range in late February and early March, surges into Nebraska and Iowa by mid-March, and into southeastern South Dakota by late March (Youngworth, 1959). Then occurs a pause first noted by Cooke (1913) before the birds move on into the Dakotas and Minnesota in late April and May (Swenk and Stevens, 1929). Thus no appreciable migration is evident beyond the winter range until May. As Orin A. Stevens (1957) notes: “In the spring Harris’ Sparrows reach Fargo, North Dakota about May 7 * * * and are present about two weeks. It seems evident that both their arrival and length of stay are delayed by cold weather, and that their departure is hastened by a warm wave. They are restless and there are few repeat records of individual birds.”

In their detailed study of the species, Myron H. Swenk and Orin A. Stevens (1929) note: “The vanguard arrives with remarkable uniformity during the first week in May or shortly thereafter at points over an area extending from the Dakotas to Minnesota and Manitoba. The passage of the vanguard across Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Northwest Territory to the breeding grounds of the species is made during the last half of May, though it is probably the middle of June before the migration of all the birds is completed.”

Banding records show that some, at least, of the Harris’ sparrows follow the same migration routes in spring and fall and in consecutive seasons, with occasionally the same stopovers. Other individuals, recovered from 25 to 100 miles on either side of their place of banding during a subsequent migration, manifestly shifted their migration path. Repeat records at banding stations (Swenk and Stevens, 1929) show that individuals may remain at given stopovers from 1 to 5 days during spring migration, averaging 1.5 days. In fall the periods are considerably longer, averaging 7 or 8 days, sometimes a month.

The speed at which Harris’ sparrows migrate in spring is indicated by several recoveries in the Bird Banding files. A bird banded at Aberdeen, S. Dak., May 9, 1933, was recovered 325 miles away at Winnipeg, Man., 5 days later, having averaged 65 miles per day. Another banded at Ipswich, S. Dak., May 7, 1940, was taken 370 miles northward at Lake Manitoba 8 days later, having averaged 46 miles per day.

Nesting: Almost a century after the discovery of Harris’ sparrow on the Missouri prairies, the eggs of this handsome bird were still unknown to science. While a nest with young and fledglings just out of the nest had been collected and the breeding range roughly established, the region was virtually inaccessible during the nesting season. Completion of the railway to Fort Churchill opened a new world to ornithological exploration, and in 1930 Percy A. Taverner (Taverner and Sutton, 1934) found the birds common at the edge of timber a few miles south of the townsite. First noted on May 28, the birds became common by June 6. He found no eggs, but collected a nest with young on June 27. He last noted the species on September 5.

In 1931 two parties visited the Churchill area with the primary aim of finding the eggs of the Harris’ sparrow. Most of the following information is summarized from the full and fascinating account by John B. Semple and George M. Sutton (1932) whose party discovered the first nest with eggs. On their way northward they observed Harris’ sparrows in numbers at The Pas, Manitoba, 500 miles south of Churchill, on May 23. The train then preceded the migration and went from spring back to winter. On arrival at Churchill May 25 they found 2 feet of snow on the level and drifts 20 feet deep; temperatures ranged from 28° F. to about 60° F. during the day. They first observed Harris’ sparrows there on May 27. Though the males were in full song, females collected showed unenlarged ovaries.

During late May and early June they saw numbers of birds daily on the barrens along the river, several miles from spruce timber; these they subsequently termed migrants on their way to more northwesterly regions. Of the nesting habitat at timberline they write: “We found the birds most common at the edges of the woodlands, in clearings near the railway track, and in the bushy margins of burned-over areas. As a rule but one pair of birds lived in a given patch of spruces or tamaracks; but sometimes two or three pairs inhabited the same narrow tongue of forest.

“By June 7, we had at least thirty pairs more or less definitely located in an area of five square miles; we had not, however, witnessed a single action indicative of nest building.” In an atmosphere tense with keen but friendly competition, both between the two parties and the men within each group, the birds continued to act indecisively. The weather continued backward and the search continued fruitless. Semple and Sutton (1932) continue:

We watched certain pairs by the hour, and found them so amazingly non-commital about what we supposed to be their “territory” that we began to wonder whether we were anywhere near the actual nesting grounds. The birds would feed together for long periods in the morning, walking along among the mess and grass; kicking vigorously, like Fox Sparrows, through leaves and debris; then mount the low bushes, wipe their bills quickly, and fly to some far-distant part of the woodlands, where it was often impossible to find them. Sometimes, Indeed, they became mildly excited at our presence; whereupon they would begin weenking loudly; but they usually soon lest interest, wiped their bills, shook themselves, and dashed off, leaving us to wonder where their nest could be. Frequently we found them feeding in tamarack trees; they appeared to be eating the buds. They were very graceful in their movements, climbing about on the slender, outermost twigs, and bowing this way and that like crossbills. Sometimes a single bird would fly suddenly from the ground under a bush, as if it had just come from a nest. Such a bird usually sought a rather high perch, often the top of a dead spruce near-by, where it would give itself over to a spasm of alarm notes, loud enough to summon all the yammering Lesser Yellow-legs from miles around; then it would dart away, to be seen no more. The habit of the birds, when frightened from the ground, of flying to rather high perches was characteristic.

By mid-June, all the birds we observed in the woodlands appeared to be mated. At this season the males so frequently sang in a chorus that it was sometimes difficult to separate a single song from the medley which sounded through the woods.

* * * * * *

On June 15, a bird carrying a wisp of dry grass was observed to go to the ground somewhere near the base of a large spruce stump in a grove of live spruce trees which grew near a small lake and on rather high ground. Though a prolonged search was made, the nest was not found. We were torn, that evening, between high enthusiasm and frank exasperation, for we knew that there must be a nest somewhere in the vicinity and we also knew we had not found it!

To George Miksch Sutton of the Carnegie Museum-Cornell University party fell the honor and good fortune of discovering the first nest. He later describes (1936) in his inimitable style the personal feelings of an ornithologist at such a moment: “As I knelt to examine the nest a thrill the like of which I had never felt before passed through me. And I talked aloud! ‘Here!’ I said. ‘Here in this beautiful place!’ At my fingertips lay treasures that were beyond price. Mine was Man’s first glimpse of the eggs of the harris’s Sparrow, in the lovely bird’s wilderness home.”

Returning to the Semple and Sutton (1932) account:

The circumstances of the finding were these: After watching a certain pair of birds for a time, the junior author started across a wet, open spruce woods, bound for an area a mile distant which the birds were known to frequent. Just as he entered a clump of comparatively tall spruce trees, he noticed a Harris’s Sparrow picking at its belly with its beak, as if it had just come from a nest. He watched the bird for a time without moving, and then deliberately and quietly retraced his steps, marking the spot carefully. After about fifteen minutes he returned briskly, walked noisily through the water, the mossy mounds, and bushes, and, just as he was about to set foot upon the crest of one of the water-bound hummocks: he flushed the bird. The neat was less than twelve inches from his foot. The bird flew directly from the nest, without any attempt at feigning injury; it perched on a dead spruce bough about twenty yards away, where it wiped it, bill. It gave no alarm note. The bird, a female, was collected at once, to make identification certain.

The nest, like that found by Ernest Thompson Seton (1908), was lined with grass, and in appearance and location resembled that of a White-throated Sparrow. It was placed a little to the southward of the top of a mossy, shrub-covered, water-girt mound in a cool, shadowy spot, about thirty yards from the edge of a clump of rather tall spruce trees. It was about thirteen inches above the brown water which surrounded the mound. The foundation material was largely moss, with a few leaves, slender weed stalks, and grasses; the lining was entirely of grass. The cup was 1¾ inches deep and 2¾ inches in diameter, as measured in the field. The walls were rather thin, for the moss into which the nest was built was very deep and soft. The eggs were sheltered from above by a few sprigs of Narrow-leaved Labrador Tea which were then in bud. The male bird was not seen. The clump of trees where this nest was found was in the forest about two miles back from the edge of the Barren Grounds; the woods were open, however, and the mossy, grassy spaces between the patches of trees had much the appearance of tundra.

During the next 3 weeks they found nine additional nests which they describe as follows: “The nests were built chiefly of grass, with a lining of finer grass (no hair, feathers, or plant down of any sort) and were situated usually in mossy hummocks among the stunted spruce trees, often on a small ‘island,’ under some sort of low shrub, and on a sheltered, southern exposure.”

Frank L. Farley of Camrose, Alberta, who led the Canadian party and spent many subsequent summers in the Churchill region recorded similar observations. Quoting from a letter he wrote to Mr. Bent in July 1937:

“I found three good sets of Harris sparrows and got onto some of their secrets. I had formerly searched in the woods for their nests, but this year learned that they invariably nest in open growths, but always near enough a good-sized spruce tree so as to use it as a lookout for intruders. On the tops, or in the tops of these, they peer out at you as you approach, always thinking they are entirely hidden in the branches. We found the 3 nests all within 100 feet of good-sized lakes and all nests were under dwarf trees, one under a small tamarack 2 feet high, the second under a little spruce 2 feet high, and the third under a pretty little arctic willow shrub, not more than 2 feet high. We found one of the nests nearly a mile from any fair sized spruce woods. If one can find both birds, neither on the nest, it is a good bet that if one watches long enough you will see the bird drop to the ground from its look-out spruce, and then after waiting for 10 minutes, you may be able to flush it within 100 feet of the tree. The birds flush at very close quarters; my three all left hurriedly when I approached within 3 feet of the nests. The nest is always sunken into the ground and is bulky, made of coarse rootlets and last year’s heavy grass stems for an outer covering, lined with fine grasses. I have never seen a feather used as lining as the Lapland Longspur and Horned Larks do. In some of the nests small pieces of moss are placed in the outer lining. After the birds know that the nest has been found, they both disappear not to return while you are near. They are the most secretive of any of the small birds I know and do not like the presence of humans near their summer homes.”

Because of the secretive nature of these shy birds, neither these first parties nor subsequent visitors to the area were able to observe details of courtship, nest building, or length of incubation. Of birds collected as they flushed from the nest, all were females. In some cases only one bird was found near the nest; in other instances the male bird was on guard in the tip of a nearby spruce and gave the alarm. At Nest 4 with four eggs, (Semple and Sutton, 1932), a female flushed at 5 feet was found, upon dissection, to contain a fully formed egg in the oviduct, indicating a tendency to set before the full clutch is deposited. During early incubation the females flushed off at 3 to 10 feet, and refused to return as long as intruders remained in the area. Later the birds returned in half an hour or so.

Olin S. Pettingill (Semple and Sutton, 1932) describes ruefully the bird’s behavior at another of the nests as follows:

I set up my blind five feet away from the nest and attempted to make photographs. * * * The birds continued to wink, one continuously, during my presence. After 1½ hours one of the birds sang for a while a short distance away and returned suddenly to continue with the racket.

For three hours I remained in the blind. I could see no indication throughout my stay that either parent would approach the nest. Both birds passed from one tree to another around the blind, making this circling a continuous performance. Not once did they drop to the ground nor come any nearer than this particular circle of trees. During the last hour I remained in the blind, the birds were as excited as they were the first hour. Had I been standing there without a blind they probably would have been no more alarmed. I feel sure that if I had left the blind near the nest the birds would have deserted.

Arthur A. Allen (1951) comments, “ * * * the bird is so wary that photography is extremely difficult; our single picture of the bird on its nest gave us more trouble than any other. We spent nearly a week getting the bird accustomed to the blind, and then at the first click of the shutter she left and did not return until I gave up after two hours of waiting.” In retrospect, I feel more fortunate than I realized at the time, to have “caught” a single photograph of another of Allen’s nests in the summer of 1934. Possibly because the incubation period was well advanced, this bird returned to her nest within half an hour after the “go-way-ster” had departed and the neophyte photographer had endured the 10,000th mosquito. At any rate, it afforded an excellent opportunity to observe these handsome birds at close range, to compare the plumages of the male and his definitely duller mate, and to admire the artistry of their carefully concealed home among the gray-green lichens and sprigs of arctic crowberry.

Eggs: The Harris’ sparrow usually lays from 3 to 5 ovate eggs and they are slightly glossy. The ground may be white or greenish-white, heavily speckled, spotted, and blotched with “Natal brown,” “Rood’s brown,” “Mar’s brown,” or “russet.” One set in the Museum of Comparative Zoology is very pale greenish white, heavily marked with spots, blotches, and a few scrawls that practically obscure the ground. Mother set is dirty white with fine specklings over the entire egg. In markings and coloring, they are very similar to those of the white-crowned sparrow, but average slightly larger. The measurements of 46 eggs average 22.2 by 16.7 millimeter; the eggs showing the four extremes measure p4.7 by 16.4, 26.6 by 17.8, p20.3 by 16.1, and 21.5 by 15.0 millimeter.

Of the 10 nests found in 1931 (Semple and Sutton, 1932),6 contained four eggs or young, 2 contained five, and 2 had three. Farley (corres.) says: “I would say that four eggs is the usual number laid. Of 5 nests found in the last 3 years, 4 nests had 4 eggs and only 1 had 5.” Only one brood is reared in this subarctic setting, though nests destroyed by untimely snow storms may be replaced as late as June 18.

Young: The length of the incubation period has only recently been determined by Joseph R. Jehl, Jr., and D. J. T. Russell (1966) who state: “Minimum incubation period for one nest 13~ days, computed from laying of fourth to hatching of third egg; the fourth egg did not hatch.” Little has been recorded of the development of young Harris’ sparrows beyond descriptions of the plumage. The only observation on nest life that has been indicated is that both parents are in attendance. Perhaps when the life histories of our commoner and more easily-studied summer birds have all been put on record, some intrepid young student will elect to fill in the many remaining gaps in our knowledge of this bird of mystery.

Plumages: Edward A. Preble (1902) first described the juvenal plumage of Harris’ sparrow from those he collected at Fort Churchill on July 24, 1900, as follows: “Upper parts dusky black, the feathers edged with deep buffy and brown, the black predominating on crown, the brown on hind neck, and the black and brown about equally divided on back; outer wing quills edged with deep buffy, inner with brown; tail feathers edged and tipped with whitish; sides of head and lower parts buffy; chest and side streaked with black, which is most conspicious on sides of chest and forms a prominent malar stripe; upper throat~grayish white, with fine dusky markings.”

Margaret M. Nice (1929) notes: “Among Preble’s and Seton’s specimens in the American Museum there are ten birds collected near Great Slave Lake in September. One, taken September 4, is a full grown bird in the nestling plumage. The others all have white chins and throats. Their crowns differ a good deal, but all have a more or less scaled appearance, for the feathers are black centrally, margined with pale grayish buffy; in the least mature birds the effect is predominantly buffy.”

I recall the young birds I saw at Churchill during the summers of 1933 and 1934 as recognizably Harris’ sparrows in a typical young fringillid pattern, streaky dark above, not radically different from the first winter plumage, and heavily streaked below on the throat, chest, sides, and flanks. The lower belly is white.

WINTER PLUMAGES: Three typical plumages occur in Harris’ sparrows during their stay in the United States: (1) The white-throated, buffy immature with crown feathers broadly margined with buff and wide, buffy, superciliary stripe giving the bird an overall brownish cast. (2) The black-throated darker adult with crown wider and blacker, and the feathers less conspicuously margined with gray or buff, giving a sharper contrast above and below. (3) The full breeding plumage with complete black hood, gray cheeks, and dark postauricular spot acquired by a partial molt of all birds during March and April. (As characteristic of the genus and most of the family, the flight feathers and rectrices are replaced only in the complete postnuptial molt.)

Between these three typical plumages occurs a wide variety of intergradations, some almost impossible to catalogue as adult or immature. Crown feathers may be broadly margined over the entire crown, lightly margined, partially at forehead or rear, or almost solid black. White throats maybe flecked, blotched, or patched with black; black throats may be flecked or patched with white until it is difficult to say which is the basic color. A number of birds have the black throat partially or broadly separated from the dark chest patch by a white band.

Considerable attention has been given these “intermediate” plumages. Robert Ridgway (1901) suggests that the birds with broadly margined crown feathers and a mixture of black and white in the throat and chin might be in their second winter, in a 3-year progression toward fully adult plumage. Swenk and Stevens (1929) elaborate on this theory, noting that about 80 percent of the migrating individuals in October and November exhibit these characteristics. Mrs. Nice (1929a) expresses surprise at the relatively small proportion of “black-hooded birds” in the wintering flocks at Norman, Okla. She raises the question as to the age at which this characteristic may be retained throughout the year and exhorts banders to solve the riddle. While operating banding stations near Stillwater, Okla., P. J. Park (1936), C. E. Harkins (1937), and G. M. Steelman and K. E. Herde (1937) consecutively made detailed observations of plumages and the prenuptial molt. They accept the 3-year age sequence theory, but while their work carefully details the progression of the plumages through a season, the few return records of birds from previous years are insufficient to substantiate any such conclusions.

My own studies at Stillwater, Okla., over an 18-year period indicate that much of this variation and intergradation in winter plumages is due to sheer individual variation, some to minor sex differences. Between February 1948 and May 1965, I banded at Stillwater a total of 1,722 Harris’ sparrows, of which 121 individuals (50 banded as adults, 66 as immatures) returned a total of 204 times from 1 to 6 years after banding. Observations on their plumages may be summarized as follows:

CROWN: Adult birds (the 50 banded as adults and all returning birds) showed no consistent sequence from year to year in the amount of edging on the crown feathers or the amount of black, unveiled crown. Some birds banded as immatures returned the following winter (R—1) with crowns only lightly edged with gray and as much as hail jet black. Others returned consistently year after year (R—1—2—3—4) with a heavy veiling over the crown and only a small black area on the forehead. Some varied from winter to winter from heavy to light and vice versa.

SUPERCILIARY STRIPE: None of the returns had the broad, buffy “eyebrows” almost meeting on the forehead that characterize the first winter plumage.

THROAT: Birds whose throats were more than half white, with black flecks, blotches, or patches, usually showed the buffy “eyebrows” and were designated immatures. Adult birds with basically black throats displayed four throat patterns as follows: (1) Throat finely flecked black and white (“salt and pepper”). (2) Throat black with white blotches or patches. (3) Broad or partial white band separating black of throat and chest. (4) Typical adult all-black throat. These patterns occured indiscriminately in R—1 birds banded as immatures and in 6-year olds, in very small females (?) and very large males (?).

Lores: Each fall I described in my records a number of birds as conspicuously big and black, or with lores, as well as throat and crown black, almost approximating the black hood of the breeding plumage. Of eight returns so described, all but one had been handed as adults and must have been in at least their third winter. Yet one banded in immature plumage showed the black hood early in the winter of his first return. In other cases I noted R—2 and R—3 birds with buffy lores, so that this appearance of the black hood cannot be associated consistently with old birds.

My records show that, far more often than not, individual birds retained their particular adult pattern from year to year, through one or more returns. They show no evidence whatever of a 3-year sequence of plumage patterns from first winter to full adult.

A single adult bird at Stillwater exhibited a reversal to its immature plumage in the second winter. Banded as an immature Dec. 2, 1962, I described it on its R: 1 return Feb. 13, 1904, as: “Typically immature plumage: crown heavily veiled, eye-line wide and buffy, throat white with only a few flecky lines radiating down from the dark chin, breast dark splotched, tail heavily frayed but white edging showing slightly.” Victor Vacin has written me of a single similar “puzzler” among his 306 return records.

Molt: Certain characteristics are acquired gradually through the winter. In immature birds the black fringe of the chin frequently appears during December and January, and Swenk and Stevens (1929) note it in some as early as October and November. In adults the buffy edges of the black loral feathers wear off and leave the bird dark-faced, not too unlike the black hood of the breeding plumage. Dark flecks may appear in the superciliary stripe by early February.

The prenuptial molt begins about the middle of March (earliest Mar. 3, 1951) and continues through most of April. By April 25 young and old are indistinguishable in velvet black hoods, gray cheeks, and fresh white feathers of chests and sides. The sequence of this molt is from chin and forehead (if not already black) to throat, crown, nape, and cheeks. New quills may appear in the chest and sides of some birds several weeks in advance of other areas. In first-year birds the superciliary stripe is frequently the last clue to immaturity, remaining a patchy buff and black until April or early May. Last to molt is the postauricular spot, which turns from brown to black.

An individual bird completes the molt in about a month. One individual I handled daily throughout the spring showed no quills until April 13; by May 9 this bird wore the full black hood, though still in heavy quills. Individuals traced by Mrs. Nice (1929a) at Norman, Okla., and a stray bird at Berkeley, Calif., by Russell H. Pray (1950) followed the same sequence. Young and old pass through the molt at the same time. First signs of molt in the spring have been observed some years in adult birds, in other years in immatures. While an occasional old return may be in full breeding plumage before the end of April, I also have notations on R—ls such as “molting head, chin, throat” on May 3, and “almost through molt” on May 14.

EXTERNAL SEX DIFFERENCES: Sex differences in plumage and measurements are slight and overlap considerably. In general the largest, stoutest, brightest birds are males and the smallest, most drab are females. The crown tends to be wider in males, narrower in females. A goodly number of intermediates cannot be sexed with certainty by external examination, though familiarity with the species increases awareness of minute differences. On my field cards I have hazarded guesses for as many as possible, resexing at each repeat or return. In some cases “immature females” have returned the next year as large, plump, glossy “adult males,” but more frequently the guess has remained consistent. In birds killed by shrikes or found dead, dissection has proved the guess correct more often than not.

Male wing and tail measurements average slightly longer than female, and those of adults slightly longer than first-year birds of the same sex, but with too much overlap to be used for certain sex identification.

Weiqhts: During three winters at Stillwater, Okla., I weighed birds at the time of banding and at intervals throughout the season on scales accurate to .065 grams. The 754 weights recorded for 200 individuals between November and May reveal definite weight patterns for the species that can be correlated with age, migration, molt, and seasonal temperature.

Adult weights showed extremes of 28.4 to 48.8 grams and averaged 36.4 grams; immatures averaged 2 grams lighter at 34.4 grams, with extremes from 26.2 to 44.9. Weights of individual birds varied up to about 3 grams during the course of a day: lightest in the early morning, heaviest at dusk.

The seasonal trend was a rise from low weights on arrival in early November to comparative highs during the cold months of January and February, followed by a pronounced drop in March that lasted through April into early May. The May averages increased consistently and then soared sharply the last 2 or 3 days before departure. Monthly averages showed adults varying almost 4 grams from a low of 34.9 in March to a 38.8 gram high at departure in May; immature monthly averages varied almost 5 grams from an April low of 32.2 to a departure high of 37.0 grams.

Individuals not uncommonly varied as much as 8.0 to 8.5 grams during their stay, more than 20 percent of their average body weight. One small immature (presumably a female) that weighed 28.4 grams when banded Apr. 21,1950, gained 7.3 grams to 35.7 grams by May 11. She returned the next fall, still classed as small at 32.3 grams. She gained only a gram during January and February, and dropped back to a normal 32.6 through April and the first fortnight of May. Between May 14 and 18 she shot up 5.2 grams to 37.8, a gain of 16 percent in less than a week. Converted into human terms these figures become spectacular: they compare to a woman of 120 pounds putting on another 20 pounds in the week preceding a vacation trip.

Food: Food habits of the Harris’ sparrows during their stay in the United States were thoroughly studied by Sylvester D. Judd (1901), who analyzed the contents of 100 stomachs for the U.S. Biological Survey. He reports that these birds subsist chiefly on vegetable matter, which constitutes 92 percent of the total food; 48 percent of the food is weed seeds including ragweed, smartweed, knotweed, black bindweed, pigweed, lambs’-quarters, gromwell, and sunflower; 25 percent of the food is the seeds of wild fruits and of various miscellaneous plants; 10 percent is grain, chiefly waste corn, but also including wheat and oats; and 9 percent is grass seed, mainly that of blue-grass, beard-grass, foxtail-grass, and Johnson-grass. The 8 percent of animal matter consists of insects, spiders, and snails, with a marked preference for leaf-hoppers among the insects constituting 2 percent of the total food. Additional animal foods quoted from various sources by Swenk and Stevens (1929) include grasshoppers, beetles, insect larvae, red ants, black carpenter ants, wireworms, and moths.

Mrs. Nice (1929a) observes that in Oklahoma they feed on poison ivy berries and elm blossoms as well as weed seeds. We also noted this at Stillwater, and found that when the Chinese elm was in bud and bloom in late February, the birds spent considerable time in these trees. In Nebraska they are reported to take corn from the fallen ears in the fall.

At feeding stations they may be attracted by almost any small grain: canary and sunflower seed, hemp, millet, grain sorghum, chick-scratch, cracked corn, also occasional suet and crumbs. They have shown no interest whatsoever in wheat. A stray bird that wintered at Berkeley, Calif. (Pray, 1950) was found to nibble on suet, finely chopped meat, weed seed, breakfast cereal, both plain and baked with kitchen fat, but not sunflower seed. By far the greatest amount of feeding was done in the tops of the live oaks, where animal food appeared to be taken. Grass and pyracantha berries were also eaten occasionally.

In the summer a higher percentage of their food is animal matter, though they are still largely vegetarian. From Semple and Sutton (1932) comes the only information:

The Harris’s Sparrow is primarily a ground feeder. It kicks and scratches energetically among the fallen leaves and dry weedstalks, and works its way through the grass and moss searching carefully for seeds and insects as it goes. We rarely saw the birds feeding for a very long period anywhere above the ground. They were sometimes seen in tamarack trees, however, where they appeared to be finding some sort of insect, or perhaps insect eggs, in the clusters of leaves.

We preserved the stomachs of several of the specimens collected, and six of these have been examined by the Bureau of the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the report given to us by Mr. Clarence Cottam of his identification of material found, the birds consume considerably more vegetable matter (about 66%) than animal matter. Among the vegetable matter found were seeds of various grasses, sedges and bulrushes; seeds of fruit: pulp of the curlew-berry, cranberry or an allied form, and the blueberry; seeds of birch, pigweed, and lamb’s quarters; and a considerable quantity of oats which doubtless had been found by the birds along the railway tracks.

Among the animal matter found were remains of numerous insects, both in adult and larval stages: ground-beetles, leaf-eating beetles, wood-borers, click-beetles, leaf-miners, stink-bugs, small moths, horse-flies, ants, ichneumon-flies, crickets and other forms; several small spiders; and fragments of small snails and other mollusks.

The food of nestlings has not yet been studied. Presumably these birds follow the fringillid pattern, feeding their young on the insect life which abounds in their northern home, with increasing quantities of grass and weed seed and miscellaneous vegetable matter as the young birds develop.

Economic status: During its sojourn in the United States the feeding habits of the Harris’ sparrow are completely beneficial. The hordes that pass through the Prairie States consume great quantities of weed and grass seeds, and molest nothing of any value to man. In the summer they are beyond the reaches of civilization, where the insects and seeds they devour, however noxious, are of no concern. Thus the Middle West is blessed with a species both charming and blameless, to welcome and cherish without reservation.

Behavior: Of their habits on the wintering grounds Mrs. Nice (1929a) writes:

Harris Sparrows are preeminently birds of underbrush; they frequent thick shrubbery along creeks and at the edge of woods, especially trees that are covered with vines. When alarmed, they, like Tree Sparrows, fly up, instead of diving into depths of cover as Song and Lincoln Sparrows do. They often perch high in trees, a characteristic not shown by any of our other wintering sparrows except Tree Sparrows and an occasional Fox Sparrow. Harris and Tree Sparrows and Juncos stay in flocks, mostly of their own species, all winter, while Song and Lincoln Sparrows are solitary.

* * * *  * * * *

In general we have found that Zonotrichia querula drove away smaller birds to some extent, but suffered, itself, from a special animosity from Cardinals. On April 29, I noted: “A Harris Sparrow is hopping about the kitchen door getting crumbs. He is a loquacious creature, chattering to himself, stopping every now and then to give a fragment of his sweet song. A young English Sparrow happens to come near: he flies at it viciously!”

* * * *  * * * *

January 19. Distinguished guests today: three Harris Sparrows arrive, all in the palest plumage. One is a tyrant, driving away the other birds; alter he has eaten enough he settles down upon the water dish and rests, while five English Sparrows, the White-crown, the Plumbeous Chickadees and two of his own kind sit about in the bushes and wait.

* * * Number 9 had an amusing habit of sunning himself on the shelf, lying down stretched out to the left, even doing this while eating. Later 0 sunned himself, but the other birds never did. Sometimes 0 chased 5 away, but in general they were amicable. They both sang a great deal during the last five days of their stay.

At Stillwater an old Harris’ sparrow, returned for his fourth season, discovered our weathervane feeder in the front yard and spent most of a cold, snowy month in it. After feeding, he would fluff up his feathers, close his eyes, and bask in the sun, safe within the glass enclosure, while the winds whipped the feeder around like a merry-go-round.

When feeding on the ground, the birds kick and scratch among the dead leaves and debris much like towhees and fox sparrows. When flushed, they fly out ahead of the intruder, lighting in the trees 50 to 100 feet ahead until he approaches again, passing and repassing one another, and finally circling back to their original weed patch. A flock frequently includes a mixture of Harris’ and tree sparrows, juncos, goldfinches, a small number of song sparrows, and one or two cardinals.

At banding stations they are among the most charming and interesting of guests. Amiable, unsuspicious, easy to catch, quiet in the hand, they rarely struggle and never bite. When released, they often lie quietly in the outstretched hand, to the delight of visiting school children, and finally fly up to the nearest branch or bush.

Both in migration and on the wintering grounds, Harris’ sparrows are proverbial repeaters. Swenk and Stevens (1929) and 0. A. Stevens (1957) relate the frequency of their repeats to weather, their length of stay in the area, individual personality, and group habits. At Stillwater, birds whose territory lay near the traps repeated several times a day. Others repeated only occasionally in snowy weather, or not at all until another year, suggesting that they came from a greater distance and only when driven by food shortage.

Harris’ sparrows appear to have personalities as variable as man himself. While some are quiet and meek, others are domineering and aggressive. Some are mild and easily handled, others become wild and difficult to catch in a trap. These latter I found became increasingly warier through the season, and developed characteristic patterns of evasion as recognizable as a color band or an albinistic feather. Eventually I caught the rest of the day’s crop and let this one out the door on his own power. It is these wary individuals that escape the occasional shrike that gets into a trap. Their ability to dodge and dart, so exasperating when a cold, hungry bander is trying to empty his traps, means life and safety when the pursuer is a cold, hungry predator.

On the nesting grounds the birds become universally shy and wary, as previously discussed, so different from the innocent, unsuspicious behavior of many of their northern neighbors that one wonders what grizzly experience in migration may have altered their character.

Voice: One of the pleasures of a home in rural Oklahoma is the flute-like chorus of the Harris’ sparrows. Well named guerula, the song has a tender, melancholy quality, and simplicity unique in my experience. Throughout the fall and winter an occasional plaintive, quavering, two-toned whistle can be heard from the weedy thicket beyond the garden, the underbrush along a roadside, fence row, or ravine. Fragmentary promise of spring, its ephemeral sweetness is broken by a hoarse chuckle or an imperious cheenk! During March the songs become more prolonged, with fewer of the grating notes, and by April the chorus is at its height, a source of delight throughout the migration period.

Mrs. Nice (1929) writes:

Harris Sparrows have a wide repertoire in their winter home:

I. A gentle tseep, not often heard.

2. A loud staccato tchip, sometimes given singly, sometimes several in succession. This is the commonest call note. At night-fall a flock of Harris Sparrows will utter a great many of these notes, much like the bed-time hubbub of Whitethroats, but less loud and less prolonged. * * *

3. The querulous exclamation or “scold,” a curious, grating, chuckling series, unlike any other bird note with which I am acquainted. It does not seem to indicate displeasure, but perhaps is conversational in nature. It is heard by itself and also during winter interspersed freely with the beautiful notes of the song. Nothing could be more incongruous than this mingling of serene beauty and absurd grumblings.

4. The song consists chiefly of clear minors of different pitches, besides which there is an occasional low husky note repeated three or four times. * * * In the following transcriptions of them h means high note; I, low note, i, intermediate in pitch; kee, husky note.

hhhhh II hhhh I ll hhhh Ill hh ll ll hhhh U hhh hhh Ill hh ll l i hhh.

hhhh ll ll h ll hhh ll i hh hhhh ll h Ill kee kee kee kee scold scold hh ll ii hh I l.

There was a very slight interval between phrases. High notes were given singly, in two’s, three’s, four’s, and once five in succession. Low notes were given singly and in two’s and three’s.

The most beautiful song of a Harris Sparrow in my experience was heard April 24, 1926 at 7 a.m., a mile from our grounds. I recorded a continuous song for about eight minutes, not, however, getting the beginning or end. * * * In this song there were only two pitches: high and low, and the husky note was absent; the general scheme seemed to be two or three high notes and then two low, but there were continual variations. There were never more than three high notes together; and only once, more than two low notes in a phrase. * * * Nothing could have been more perfect in its way. It was of exquisite sweetness, the very spirit of serenity and peace.

Aretas A. Saunders (corres.), who recorded five songs at Stillwater in 1955, states that “the notes of one song may be all on one pitch, or varied somewhat, from one-hall tone to one and one-half tones. The pitch of songs varies from B5 to F6.” (B in the second highest octave of the piano, F in the highest octave).

Swenk and Stevens (1929) who regard each phrase as a separate song, describe as follows several songs set to music by Mrs. Jane B. Swenk: ” * * * one to five, usually two or three, whistled noted * * * all on the same high pitch (usually in the second octave above middle C) * * * followed after a very slight interval by one to four, commonly two or three, usually natural notes at a different pitch, at an interval of a half-step to a major third higher, but sometimes correspondingly lower * * *. In the spring this song is repeated over and over * * * for minutes at a time,” producing what Mrs. Nice described above as “one continuous song.”

On the nesting grounds, Semple and Sutton (1932) describe the summer song thus:

At this season the males so frequently sang in a chorus that it was sometimes difficult to separate a single song from the medley which sounded through the woods. The song most frequently heard was a single, whistled note, tenuous, fragile, a trifle quavering, and possessed of the plaintive character of the final Peabody phrases of the White-throated Sparrow’s lay. Sometimes this note was repeated once, twice, even four or five times, the notes trailing into each other uncertainly. Other songs were more elaborate, and consisted of two notes at one pitch followed by two or three notes two steps higher, or two or three steps lower. Often the notes struck were not quite in key, this frequently being responsible, no doubt, for the minor effect the songs produced. The songs of several birds were sometimes so strikingly identical in pitch that a distant song sounded precisely like the echo of another song heard closer at hand.

In the morning, usually between eight and ten o’clock, and in the late afternoon or evening, when the weather was fine, all the birds sang together for long periods. Sometimes, indeed, the chorus continued practically all day long. During the regular song periods the performers often gave their songs with such regularity that two or three birds, singing at different pitches, sometimes produced simple tunes which were repeated again and again, unless some disturbance caused one of the singers to stop. One such tune, which the junior author heard and recognized instantly as part of the theme of a familiar classical composition [the first four measures of Schubert’s Minuet from the Sonata in G, Opus 78, No. 3], was produced by at least two and possibly three birds. It was repeated, almost flawlessly, about twenty times.

The remarkable feature of this performance is, of course, that, though produced by two or three different birds, supposedly singing independently and at different pitches (liked belled horses at the circus), it kept so nearly true to a recognizable key note according to our diatonic scale.

Since we hesitated to collect birds whose nests we hoped to find later, we did not shoot any singing birds in an attempt to learn whether the female ever sings. Many times, however, we gained the impression that mated birds were singing to each other. One such case we noted on June 8. We were watching two birds which we assumed to be mates and which were feeding in a tamarack; one of them was smaller than the other, and the two seemed to be attached to each other. Suddenly feeding stopped and both began to sing, one in a lower, gentler voice than the other.

Harris’s Sparrow has another, louder, and very striking song which we heard only occasionally. This song was so distinctly different from the usual whistle, and so suggestive of songs of some of the other species of sparrows, that for some time we could not place it. It began with a fine, swiftly descending, rather tuneless whistle or squeal, and closed with a series of from three to six rough, buzzing, drawled notes which decidedly resembled the usual song of the Claycolored Sparrow (Spizella pallida). We wrote the song down thus: Eeeeeeeeee, zhee, zhee, zhee, zhee, zhee. We noticed that the bird usually gave this song from a high perch and that, after it had sung, it dropped to the ground stealthily or flew off hurriedly.

The alarm note was a loud weenk, or wink, readily distinguishable from the weaker zheek of Gambel’s Sparrow and from the heavy tchup of the Fox Sparrow (Passeralla i. iliaca). The call which accompanied mating was a fine, rolling chatter, similar to that given at such time by many other members of the sparrow tribe.

During late July and August (1934), when care of the young and the fall molt are sapping the vitality of most northern birds, we heard very little singing at Churchill. Seton (1908) notes that he “found the species in full song September 3” at Great Slave Lake. On migration during the fall they are generally silent. Thomas S. Roberts (1879) states that at Minneapolis, Minn., “I have never heard any song from them except on one occasion. That was in the fall, when a bird in the plumage of the year uttered a low, continuous warble as it sat on the top of a brush-pile. This was repeated many times, and reminded one somewhat of the subdued singing of the Tree Sparrow, often heard in the early spring.”

Swenk and Stevens (1929) comment that when the southbound Harris’ sparrows reach the region south of latitude 410:

*** a region where the birds will linger in abundance from late September to late October, *** their whole vocal behavior changes. The autumn is ordinarily a season when bird songs are conspicuous by their absence, but in the region mentioned the Harris’s Sparrow sings as sweetly, if not as fully and volubly, in October as in May. It especially likes to sing in chorus in the evening, shortly before nightfall. At this season the song commonly consists of one or two drawling minor whistled notes, sometimes followed by a third note at a different pitch, all relatively slow and subdued as compared to the spring song, and very like the abbreviated songs of our other Zonotrichias at the same season. On bright days during the entire winter its more or less abbreviated song may be heard. As spring approaches the song becomes complete and more sustained.

Enemies: Nothing has been recorded of actual predation on the nesting grounds. The North is blissfully free of many of our songbirds’ worst enemies: snakes, house sparrows, starlings, cowbirds, the feral cat, small boys, agricultural practices, and that modern scourge, pesticides. A list of potential predators known within the breeding range of Harris’ sparrow includes an occasional marsh hawk, peregrine falcon, pigeon hawk, sparrow hawk, horned owl, northern shrike, red fox, a few red squirrels, martens, and weasels. If the birds are as clever at concealing their nests from natural enemies as from visiting ornithologists, predation is slight indeed.

During the winter Harris’ sparrows may suffer some losses to cats, boys with air guns, shrikes, and bird hawks of one kind or another. The greatest destructive force to the species, however, is undoubtedly weather. Storms during the migration and snow or ice that covers the food supply probably account for more fatalities than all other causes combined.

Life expectancy: As the Harris’ sparrow lays an average of 4 eggs for the single brood it raises each year and has comparatively few natural enemies, it may be assumed that when the birds leave the nesting grounds the ratio of young to adults is approximately 2 to 1, and the population is composed of roughly 66 percent immatures and 33 percent adults. An analysis of my banding records for 12 years at Stillwater, Okla., in the heart of the winter range, shows the proportion of young to adults fluctuating through the non-breeding season as follows:

Month — Adults — Immatures — Totals — % adults — % immatures
Oct. — 4 — 7 — 11 — 36% — 64%
Nov. — 123 — 254 — 377 — 33% — 67%
Dec. — 106 — 172 — 278 — 38% — 62%
Jan. — 109 — 96 — 205 — 53% — 47%
Feb. — 90 — 97 — 187 — 48% — 52%
Mar. — 163 — 164 — 327 — 50% —50%
Apr. — 11 — 30 — 41 — 27% — 73%  (By the end of April all birds are in adult plumage. Only birds of known age are included here.)
May — 2R — — — 100% —

Totals — 608 — 820 — 1,426 —42% —58%

[The total of 1,426 includes each return tabulated in month it returned.]

Thus during the autumn the young of the year outnumber the adults by the anticipated two to one, and the ratio decreases only slightly in December. By January the effects of the higher mortality rate among the immatures begin to be evident; the proportion of young to old becomes nearly equal and apparently remains so through March. The April increase of immatures to 73 percent is based on a small sample of only 41 birds, which may well lack statistical significance. Far more likely, it suggests that the older birds tend to leave the wintering grounds for the north some weeks earlier than the first-year individuals. Also these ratios may be biased against the adults by the tendency of immature birds to enter the banding traps more readily in the spring as Stevens (in litt.) has suggested.

The higher mortality in the young birds is also demonstrated by shrike predation at the banding traps, which occurs at Stillwater almost entirely during mid-winter when the age ratio is approximately balanced. During the 18 years of banding there, shrikes killed in the traps a total of 36 immature Harris’ sparrows and only 6 adults, one of which was somewhat crippled by a leg injury. The percentage of first year mortality cannot be determined from the data available, but it is probably in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 percent.

Annual mortality and longevity in the birds that survive the first year may be estimated from the numbers of wintering birds that return to the banding station in subsequent years. From the total of 1,361 birds banded at Stillwater between February 1948 and May 1960, 121 individuals returned one or more years for a total of 204 times through May 1965. Of these 66 were banded as immatures, 50 as adults, and 5 after April 25 when subadults could not be recognized. The survival of these birds permits the construction of the following table:

First column:  Age interval in years (x)
Second column:  Alive at start (lx)
Third column:  Calculated deaths (dx)
Fourth column:  Annual mortality (qx)

1-2(R-1) — — 121 — — 57 — — 47%
2-3(R-2) — — 64 — — 53 — — 36%
3-4(R-3) — — 41 — — 19 — — 46%
4-5(R-4) — — 22 — — 9 — — 41%
5-6(R-5) — — 13 — — 6 — — 46%
6-7(R-6) — — 7 — — 7 — — 100%

These returns demonstrate a mean annual mortality from the first through the seventh years of 45 percent. The species’ potential life span is thus slightly in excess of 10 years, but such advanced years are probably not attained by more than one bird in each thousand that survive the first year. Of my seven Return-6 birds, 4 were banded as adults, and hence were at least almost 8 years old the last spring they were taken, and could have been older.

The files of the Bird-Banding Office at Patuxent, covering a period of 25 years and representing thousands of Harris’ sparrow records, contain only 13 Return-6 birds, including my 7. Of their three R-7 birds, the age at time of banding was not designated for two, but the third and a fourth bird also banded in Oklahoma City by Victor Vacin (correspondence) were immature when banded and therefore in their 8th year when last taken. The single R-8 bird that W. Wilkins banded as an immature in Chapman, Kans., Dec. 10, 1932, and recaptured Feb. 13, 1941, holds the all-time longevity record to date of 8½ years.

Fall: After completing their late summer molt, the hordes of Harris’ sparrows drift down from their northern home and swarm across the prairie provinces by mid-September. Swenk and Stevens (1929) point out: “A universal comment is that this sparrow is more common in the fall migration than in the spring. This seems to be connected with the fact that the fall movement is slower: requiring three months to pass from its breeding grounds to the southern extremity of its wintering range: the birds tarrying in attractive localities or wandering somewhat to one side until urged on by colder weather.”

The few direct recoveries of fall-banded birds give some idea of the rate of the southward movement. One banded at Madison, Minn., Oct. 3, 1936, was taken at Woodward, Okla., November 21, having covered the 600 miles in 49 days, or 12.2 miles per day. A bird banded at Fargo, N. Dak., on October 2 was recovered at Yankton, S. Dak., 270 miles and 21 days later, having averaged 13 miles per day. Slightly better time was made by one banded at Tower City, N. Dak., October 21 and recovered at Le Mars, Iowa, 300 miles southward, November 10, an average of 15 miles per day. Two others banded at Fargo, N. Dak., October 23 and 24 were still tarrying in South Dakota, a scant 100 and 125 miles south, 7 weeks later in mid-December.

Swenk and Stevens (1929) write: “The results at Fargo indicate that the adults move southward more promptly than the immatures. About 90 per cent of the adults arrived by October 5, but only 50 to 60 per cent of the immatures (94 and 60 per cent in 1927, 88 and 48 per cent in 1928).” Stevens later (1957) comments that the individual length of stay, as judged by the capture of repeats, varied from 1 to 10 days, with an extreme of 24 days, and the average varied from year to year from 4.3 to 7.6 days.

Winter: From their careful examination of a vast accumulation of records, Swenk and Stevens (1929) outline the species’ normal winter range as extending primarily south of latitude 41° from southeastern Nebraska through Kansas and Oklahoma to central Texas, overlapping into western Missouri and northwestern Arkansas, a narrow strip some 200 by 900 miles between the 94th and 100th meridians, and north of the 28th parallel. A few birds often linger north of the 41st parallel well after the main migration has moved on. In his 32 years of observations in southern South Dakota and adjoining Iowa, William Youngworth (1959) has recorded the species 43 times in December, 6 times in January (including one flock of 20 birds), once in February and once in early March. He believes the birds are encouraged to remain by the urban development and the planting of trees and shrubs in these plains states, but that they probably move southward when the weather becomes bitter. In the Bird Banding ifies are records of three Harris” sparrows found frozen in haystacks at Northville and Ipswich, S. Dak., during January and February 1936.

The earliest fall record for the species at Stillwater, Okla., is October 24, but the species usually arrives here in the heart of the winter range during the first week of November. Graphs charting the daily arrivals of individuals at the Stillwater banding station show the period from early November through the first half of December as a series of peaks with new birds appearing almost daily. Most of these birds are migrants that repeat at the traps only a few times or perhaps remain a week or two before disappearing forever. At the same time many of the regular winter residents, both new and returns, are arriving.

The third week in December shows a sharp drop in new arrivals. The graphs now follow a long flat line through late December, January, February, and frequently into March, broken only by dips as a lone bird or two drifts in, and by occasional abrupt peaks during periods of heavy snow or extreme cold. The timing of these peaks is too irregular to indicate anything but local movements of birds in search of food. Most of the birds comprising them disappear as soon as the snow melts, perhaps to reappear during another storm in the same or a subsequent year, suggesting residence in a neighboring territory rather than migration. Meanwhile the traps are visited regularly by a small but constant number of repeaters, the birds that occupy the immediate trapping area throughout the season.

Field counts corroborate this pattern. Over a 6-year period 73 counts were made in a 20-acre tract surrounding the banding station. While the number of Harris’ sparrows varied from year to year depending on weather and habitat changes, the proportions from month to month followed this same trend and showed a fairly stable population throughout late December, January, and February. Other groups could be anticipated regularly in favorable spots within a half mile of the station.

The size of the wintering territory of a Harris’ sparrow flock appears to be quite limited under normal conditions. Restricted laterally by the brushy and weedy fringes of a particular hedgerow or timbered ravine, it may extend several hundred yards longitudinally and follow up side branches or tongues of suitable cover for shorter distances. Our regular repeaters remained roughly within the 20 acres adjoining our home, which included three banding traps 300 feet apart, a lawn with various feeding devices, and weedy borders of a garden, chicken yard, and brushy ravine. The birds visited two of the traps interchangeably and the third trap, nearer the house, less often, usually during severe weather.

During the winter of 1961-62 Donald D. Bridgwater (MS) operated banding traps at four other territories occupied by wintering flocks from ¼ mile to ¾ mile distant from my home station. Birds at each station were also marked by gluing differently colored chicken feathers to the tails with household cement, and trailed in scores of field censuses. Of the 254 banded, approximately half did not repeat at any station. His study revealed that more than half the repeaters banded at my home or the nearest substation, ¼ mile down the brushy ravine, traveled the intervening area fairly freely. Another station only 1/3 mile away but not linked with the ravine system showed only a 9 percent interchange, whereas a third station 3~ mile distant at a well-landscaped home with a continuous feeding program revealed a 28 percent interchange with my station. Between the farthest distant stations, ¾ mile apart, there was only 2 percent interchange.

Similar studies by Charles E. Harkins (1937), P. J. Park (1936), and P. J. Steelman and K. E. Herde (1937) demonstrate the strong homing instinct in Harris’ sparrows and the birds’ fidelity to their winter territory. Birds caught at one station and released at another were never taken where freed: they either returned to the original station or disappeared. Individuals homed successfully to their territories from 2 miles away.

In March new birds surge in again, presumably migrants from farther south, which usually repeat a time or two and pass on. Some that come in with the March snows may linger into April or May and return another year, suggesting that they occupied nearby territories throughout the season. At this time many of the winter regulars make their last appearance.

April is generally a static period when the traps are visited primarily by the remaining repeaters. May brings a few more migrants and sees the departure of the last winter residents, which are usually the latest to leave. Though my last date for a new bird is May 11, the last repeats of the season are made characteristically by the all-winter residents, which have made the late records for Oklahoma of May 18, 19, and 26.

The many returns to the place of banding on the wintering grounds year after year indicate that attachment to the winter territory is strong and evidently established during the first year. Within their little circuits, and certainly on the wintering grounds, home is home to the Harris’ sparrows throughout their brief and unpretentious little lives.


Harris’ Sparrow

Range: Mackenzie and southern Keewatin south to southern California, central Arizona, south central Texas, northwestern Louisiana, and Tennessee. Primarily mid-continental.

Breeding range: The Harris’ sparrow breeds from northwestern and central eastern Mackenzie (Mackenzie Delta, Kah-duonay and Crystal Islands) and southern Keewatin (Sandhill Lake) south to northern Manitoba (Cochrane River, Lac Du Brochet, Bird); casually east in summer to northwestern Ontario (Fort Severn).

Winter range: Winters from southern British Columbia (Victoria, Comox, Lillooet, Vancouver, Okanagan Landing), southern Idaho (Nampa), Wyoming, Utah (Centerville, Linwood), northern Colorado (Fruita, Boulder, Longmont), east central and southeastern South Dakota (Huron, Yankton, Sioux Falls), and central Iowa (Woodbury and Polk counties) south to southern California (Encinitas; San Clemente Island), southern Nevada (mouth of El Dorado Canyon), southwestern Arizona (Tucson), south central Texas (Del Rio; Bee County), northwestern Louisiana (Shreveport), northwestern Mississippi (Hernando), and Tennessee (Memphis, Nashville); casually north to northwestern Montana (Libby), southeastern North Dakota (Fargo), Wisconsin (Polk and Shawano counties), southern Ontario (Neebing Township, Peterborough, Hamilton, Toronto), Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie, Midland), and Massachusetts (Greenfield, Warren, Bradford, Boxford, and Edgartown); and east to Pennsylvania (Bucks County), Maryland (Darnestown), Virginia (Ashburn), South Carolina (Gramling), Georgia (Atlanta), and Florida (Winter Park, Melbourne Beach).

Casual records: Casual in migration north to south central Alaska (Cohoe), northern Alaska (Nikilik on Colville River delta), northern Mackenize (Bathurst Inlet), and New York (Ithaca, New York City, Fire Island), east to Massachusetts (Martha’s Vineyard), Connecticut (Glastonbury), New Jersey (Troy Meadows), Maryland (Howard County), and south to Georgia (Athens), Florida (Leon and Brevard counties), Alabama (Birmingham) and Mississippi (Gulfport, Rosedale).

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Illinois: Chicago, May 3 (average of 8 years, May 12). Ohio: central Ohio, April 1. Iowa: Sioux City, average of 17 years, March 29. Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, April 27 (average of 7 years, May 7). Nebraska: Lincoln, average of 20 years, March 14. South Dakota: Sioux Falls, March 26 (average of 7 years, April 30). North Dakota: Jamestown, March 5; Cass County, April 27 (average, May 6). Manitoba: Treesbank, May 3 (average of 25 years, May 8). Wyoming: Torrington, April 19. Idaho: Lewiston, April 4.

Late dates of spring departure are: Tennessee: Nashville, April 11. Missouri: St. Louis, May 8 (median of 6 years, May 5). Illinois: Chicago, May 29 (average of 8 years, May 15). Ohio: central Ohio, May 14. Iowa: Sioux City, May 26 (average of 38 years, May 15); Winnebago, May 12. Wisconsin: northern counties, May 18. Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, May 24 (average of 5 years, May 20). Kansas: northeastern Kansas, May 19 (median of 19 years, May 10). Nebraska: Fairbury, June 4; Lincoln, average of 20 years, May 14. South Dakota: Sioux Falls, May 24 (average of 5 years, May 19). North Dakota: Cass County, May 29 (average, May 27); Jamestown, May 18. Wyoming: Torrington, May 14. Idaho: Potlatch, April 19.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Montana: Medicine Lake, September 30. Wyoming: Douglas, October 7. Saskatchewan: Saskatoon, September 22. Manitoba: Treesbank, September 10 (average of 22 years, September 19). North Dakota: Cass County, September 12 (average, September 16); Jamestown, September 14. South Dakota: Sioux FaIls, September 18 (average of 5 years, September 25). Nebraska: Red Cloud, September 10. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, October 27. Texas: Sinton, November 9. Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, September 17 (average of 8 years, September 23). Iowa: Sioux City, September23 (median of 38 years, October 8); Winnebago, September 26. Wisconsin: Stevens Point, September 27. Ohio: Buckeye Lake, October 20. Illinois: Chicago, September 19 (average of 14 years, September 27). Missouri: St. Louis, November 28 (median of 13 years, November 6). Louisiana: Baton Rouge, November 13.

Late dates of fall departures are: Washington: Opportunity, October 24. Montana: Missoula, October 28. Wyoming: Laramie, November 14. Saskatchewan: Saskatoon, November 5. Mauitoba: Treesbank, October 20 (average of 22 years, October 9). North Dakota: Cass County, October 24 (average, October 21); Jamestown, October 23. South Dakota-Sioux Falls, November 7 (average of 4 years, November 3). Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, November 9 (average of 7 years, October 23). Wisconsin: October 27. Iowa-Sioux City, average of 17 years, November 11. Ohio: central Ohio, November 12. Illinois: Chicago, November 6 (average of 14 years, October 17).

Egg dates: Manitoba: 21 records, June 11 to July 6; 7 records, June 26 to July 1.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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