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Sage Sparrow

These sparrows are more commonly known as Bell’s sparrows now, named after John Graham Bell.

Frequently a runner rather than a flyer in behavior, the Sage Sparrow can be very inconspicuous. Some populations of Sage Sparrows are migratory, while others are permanent residents. The migratory birds appear to travel in small groups, at least in the fall.

Brown-headed Cowbirds sometimes parasitize Sage Sparrow nests, but this usually occurs where humans have changed the habitat in favor of the cowbirds. Some Sage Sparrows abandon parasitized nests, but other will raise the cowbirds. Two or three years is a typical lifespan for Sage Sparrows, but a few have reached six or seven years of age.

Length: 6 inches
Wing span: 8 inches


Description of the Sage Sparrow


The Sage Sparrow has a dark gray head, a white eye ring and spot in front of the eye, a black stripe on the sides of a white throat, white underparts with a black breast spot, and brownish upperparts and wings.

Sage Sparrow

Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles have streaked underparts.


Sage Sparrows inhabit sagebrush, chaparral, and brushy foothill areas.


Sage Sparrows eat insects and seeds.

Sage Sparrow

Photograph © Greg Lavaty


Sage Sparrows forage on the ground.


Sage Sparrows breed throughout much of the western U.S., centered on the Great Basin. They winter in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The population has declined in some areas in recent decades.

Fun Facts

Four U.S. subspecies of Sage Sparrows are recognized, including one that occurs on San Clemente Island off California.

Some populations of Sage Sparrows have exceptionally large territories for a sparrow.

Sage Sparrows often run with their tails cocked upward.


The song consists of a jumbled series of phrases.  A high call repeated in sequence is also given.


Similar Species


The Sage Sparrow’s nest is a cup of sticks lined with finer materials. It is placed low in a bush or shrub.

Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Bluish-white with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 13-16 days and fledge at about 9-11 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Sage 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 Sage Sparrow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




This race is closest in color and size to Amphispiza belli nevadensis with which it intergrades in the northern part of the Inyo district of California. Compared with nevadensis, it is smaller and slightly darker; the back streaking is reduced or lacking and the moustache marks and streakings of the flanks are somewhat more prominent. The best distinguishing feature is size, and this, as expressed in wing length averages, is about 10 percent less as Grinnell’s original table (1905b) of measurements showed.

The subspecies canescens ranges from the Inyo area of California and bordering Nevada south to the southern San Joaquin Valley and the adjacent brushlands of the inner and upper levels of the coastal mountains; its range also encircles the Mohave Desert basins on the north, west and south, from which this form is absent in the breeding season.

Like the northern sage sparrow, canescens thrives in the Artemisia brush in the upper elevations of its range, but it extends beyond this extensively into the Atriplez of the floor of the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. Here it nests at low elevations, such as 200 feet near Tulare Lake. On the east side of the Sierra Nevada it nests up to 8,000 feet (Grinnell and Miller, 1944). On the Grapevine Mountains of western Nevada I found that canescens “filtered up through openings in the [pifion] trees from * * * centers of abundance at lower levels” (Miller, 1946). It did not use pifions, in fact avoided them, yet within the pifion belt it found well isolated tracts of brush up to 7,500 feet which it occupied for nesting.

Along the southwestern border of its range I have found this subspecies entering the edge of the heavier brushlands of Adenostoma and scrub oak, as on San Benito Mountain, California. Yet in the main this habitat is occupied immediately to the westward by the very distinctive race Amphispiza beli belli. Here near this junction the form canescens occurs regularly in the rather open Artemisia californica, in Atriplex and Julaplopappus hushes, and in Eriodiet you.

In August following the nesting season, molting birds and those in new autumnal plumage gather in loose flocks about water sources, from which they drink frequently. On August 23, two miles south and five miles east of Shandon, San Luis Ohispo County, these sparrows were coming to drink, flying in from the Artemisia californica one to three at a time. They sometimes perched close together favoring the tall open shrubs or the junipers and a single elderberry. Others alighted on open ground beyond the water and ran about before fluttering in among the short sedges. On September 11, among Atriplex bushes near McKittrick in Kern County, they were again coming to water in the 1000-weather. Many were heard singing, at times giving as many as 10 fall-voiced songs in sequence. These birds were in fresh new plumage and were far past the nesting season.

On Mount Pinos to the south Grinnell (1905c) noted bands of full grown young that had moved upslope from the nesting areas in late June. They were among gooseberry hushes on the very summit at 8,826 feet, about 2,000 feet above the growths of Artemisia tridentata where they nest on this mountain.

Nesting: Dates for nesting of this race recorded in the literature and those attested to by the collections of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology range from March 29 to June 6, with most of them in April and May. Nests are placed low in bushes from 1 to 2 feet up; there are no records of ground nests such as occur on the race nevadensis. Three nests I have examined show the same wool lining found in those of nevadensis, but fewer bark shreds and more grass and flowering stalks of annual plants. One has some feathers in the lining.

Eggs: Sets of eggs consist of 3 in four instances, and of 4 eggs in eight instances; there is one set of 5 eggs recorded by George Willett (1911). The eggs are indistinguishable in color from those of the northern sage sparrow, but they are, on the average, significantly shorter. Thus the length of 55 eggs averages 18.98 millimeters as against 19.47 millimeters for 70 eggs of nevadensis. The width in canescens averages 14.46 millimeters which is essentially the same as in nevadensis.

Winter: This subspecies of sage sparrow is partly resident in nearly all sections of its breeding range, or at most it moves locally or retreats from the higher nesting areas. But it also migrates south and east of the summer range into lowland areas. Maihiard and Grinnell (1905) state that “sage sparrows were fairly common out on the desert and on the sage flats near” the Mohave River in midwinter; half of the specimens they took there were of the race caneseens. This is only a short distance from the breeding grounds, as are also the wintering areas in the Joshua Tree National Monument. There Miller and Stebbins (1964) found them appearing as early as August 27, “moving about over sand among dead twig debris at the base of chrysothamnus bushes.” After wintering in this general area fairly commonly, the last sage sparrows depart by the first week in April.

Range: Interior California to northeastern Baja California and southwestern Arizona.

Breeding Range: The California sage sparrow breeds in central interior California, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, including the bordering mountains, from southwestern Merced and southeastern San Benito counties to Tulare County, interior San Luis Obispo, and northern Ventura, northern Los Angeles, and Kern counties; also in the Inyo district (Benton southward) and adjoining central western Nevada (Esmeralda County; Grapevine Mountains) and the western and southern borders of the Mohave Desert (east to the San Bernardino Mountains).

Winter Range: Winters in the breeding range and extends south to southwestern California (Riverside), northeastern Baja California (Las Palmas Canyon), and southwestern Arizona (Arlington, Quitobaquito).

Contributed by ALDEN H. MILLER


In the chaparral of the coastal slopes of California the sage sparrows are represented by the strikingly dark and distinctive, small race Amphispiza belli belti. The brush to which this form adheres is much denser than that occupied by the desert races of the species and most often consists of relatively compact stands of chamise. Grinnell and Miller (1944) summarize the characteristics of the habitat as follows:

Chaparral of arid, or “hard” type, usually fairly dense or continuous and 2 to 5 feet in height. Marked preference is shown for tracts of chamise (Adenostoma) which in many sections is the only plant association occupied. [It] * * * occurs sparingly in baccharis and artemisia [californica] brush to northward and also is found in brush growing on sand dunes and mesas near seacoast, and in mixed brush and cactus patches in arid washes. Within the brush cover the birds find all requirements for existence: forage beat on the ground and low in the bushes, nest sites at low levels in concealing twigs, and avenues of escape by running through the bushes or by flight through or over their tops; this form is less given to running long distances than are A. b. canescens and A. b. nevadensis, perhaps because of the denser brushland habitat it selects.

Because of the dense habitat and the general tendency of the species to run behind and beneath bushes, this race is even more difficult to detect than those occurring inland. Except when singing, most of the time the birds stay below the tops of the brush, but they may occasionally be flushed as one breaks through the cover or they may be seen by squeaking them up, whereupon they briefly occupy lookout posts on the tips of the chamise.

Although the song and notes of this race do not differ from those of the other sage sparrows, its darker coloration and smaller size make it recognizable in the field. In mixed postbreeding groups along the eastern border of the range of A. b. belli in San Benito County, I have been able to distinguish it readily from canesce’ns in the same flocks. The back is deep brown, contrasting but slightly with the black tail, and the moustache marks and breast spot are black and thick and large; also the sides are conspicuously striped.

Grinnell and Swarth (1913) studied this sage sparrow in spring and summer at the eastern edge of its range in the San Jacinto Mountains of southern California. Here it was first noted at an altitude of 3,000 feet on the west side. At Kenworthy, 4,500 feet, “the birds frequented the denser growth of sagebrush on the floor of the valley. During the first week in June flocks of five or six individuals were occasionally encountered, possibly non-breeding birds, for the majority of the species were in pairs and scattered through the brush at fairly regular intervals. The birds forming flocks were silent, usually feeding on the ground, while of the paired birds the male spent a large portion of the time perched upon a projecting limb of a bush, and uttering his song at frequent intervals.”

On the north side of the mountains these sparrows were fairly common in the chamise of the hills above Cabezon.

In late summer upslope movement was conspicuous and juveniles were taken as high as 9,000 feet at Round Valley. As in other races of sage sparrows, the annual molt starts early; in this case adults were in midmolt in the latter part of June. Near the northern end of the range of A. b. belli in western Tehama County, Calif., on June 12, I found pairs closely spaced in Adenostoma 3 feet in height. The brush was recovering from a burn and one could move about easily in it in the alleyways, along which the sparrows were seen to run. Pairs averaged about 50 yards apart, from the center of one territory to the next. When excited or disturbed, two or three pairs would come in sight at once but they could always be distinguished as pairs. Some pairs obviously had active nests, but others had young out of the nest.

Nestimg: C. S. Sharp (1906) found a nest with eggs in a wild rose patch in an opening in a willow grove near Escondido, Calif. This is a very unusual situation and habitat. In this same area, James B. Dixon writes me of sage sparrows occupying comparatively dry, low brush cover. He says that at times the brush is sparse with rocks intermixed. He found a nest in rather dense brush, waist high, on a south-facing hillside about 600 feet above sea level near Lake Hodges, San Diego County, on May 19. The nest was carefully concealed and was discovered only by watching the female from a distance. This nest, in the forks of a heavy bush at practically ground level, was well made of weed stalks and inwardly lined with fine weed stems and soft weed fibers. Both adults “made quite a fuss and would come to within eight feet of us.”

Another nest that Dixon found near Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo County, and which I judge belongs to this race, was placed low in a scrubby bush in a dry wash. It was composed entirely of grayish weed fibers, outwardly coarse and inwardly fine. It held three slightly incubated eggs on April 12. Nests of this race that have been reported were all above ground at heights from 6 to 24 inches. Nest materials are generally similar to those used by other sage sparrows, but wool or fine hair occurs less consistently in the lining. I have seen several nests in which seed heads of plants alone constituted the soft lining layer.

Nests with eggs are to be found chiefly in April and May. George Willett (1912) gives earliest and latest dates for fresh or slightly incubated eggs in southern California as April 6 and June 25. Additionally we have records of eight nests with eggs from April 10 to May 19, and in Tehama County, near Beegum, on June 12, I took a female that was laying, but the set she was producing may have been a replacement nest; I could not be certain that it was a true second nesting although there were grown young in the vicinity that may have been hers.

Eggs: Clutches of Bell’s sage sparrow usually consist of four eggs. We have records of seven such sets. Two sets of three are reported but one of these at least was fresh and may have been incomplete. James B. Dixon in reporting the nest near Lake Hodges, San Diego County, commented on the unusually large clutch of five eggs that it held.

Measurements of 40 eggs show an average of 18.93 millimeters in length and 14.48 millimeters in width. These dimensions are not significantly different from those for the race canescens, but, again, the eggs are significantly shorter than in the large-sized race nevadensis.

Plumages: The pattern of markings is similar to that in the northern sage sparrow, except that the dorsal striping is obsolete and the flank striping is augmented; the moustache markings and breast spot are broader, larger, and more solidly black. Coloration is much darker as follows: above, deep brownish slate-gray, becoming browner on back; wings and tail dull blackish, with light brown edgings, the middle and greater coverts indistinctly tipped with pale brownish bully or pale wood brown; outer web and small tip area of outer tail feathers buff; the sides and flanks are buff to light brown streaked with dusky.

The juvenal plumage of A. b. beth is of the same pattern as in nevadensis, but the coloration is darker, corresponding to the darker colors to be seen in the adult plumage.

Food: On May 26, near Beegum, Tehama County, I took a female that was carrying four green caterpillars crosswise in her bill. These were % inch long and were of a species prevalent in the Adenostoma brush at that time. This food was obviously intended for young birds, but in an adult taken at the same place on June 12, I found a similar caterpillar in its stomach as well as sand and some fragments of seeds.

In the summer and fall periods of warmth and drought, Bell’s sage sparrows come to water as do the related races of this species. John Davis writes of the “Bell Sparrows” at Hastings Reservation in the Carmel Valley, Calif., coming to water traps on November 5. This is a time when available water is about at the low point for the year. He has seen the species in fall at water sources well removed from its normal habitat, and apparently the birds must range some distance for water at this dry season.

Voice: The notes of this race are like those of the northern sage sparrow, although the song may be variously described. Grinnell and Storer (1924) write one variation of it as tweesitity-slip, tweesitity-ship, swer. Near Coulterville, Calif., on May 12, they recorded a bird singing every 9 or 10 seconds, each song lasting 2~ seconds. The song would be repeated for several minutes from one perch and then the bird would change to another location. “It would perch on the topmost shoot of a greasewood [Adenostoma] bush, facing away from the wind, its feathers blown outward somewhat, and would rock back and forth in keeping its balance on the swaying twig.” This bird centered its attention on a particular section of a hillslope and “circled about within a radius of not over 150 feet, singing from one perch, then changing to another. Between song periods he would disappear, presumably to forage, within the mantle of brush * *

Winter: Bell’s sage sparrow is nonmigratory and remains on the breeding grounds in winter and in the same habitat, usually foregoing even local movements. Thus in winter near Beegum in Tehama County at the northern end of its range, I found sage sparrows on February 7 in the same brush patch in which they had nested; they seemingly were paired. Once I heard one give a subsong.

Hill and Wiggins (1948) state that at lat. 3Oo21~ N. in Baja California “Bell Sparrows” were singing vigorously on October 22.

One notable exception to permanent residency is recorded by Miller and Stebbins (1964) who found A. b. belli ranging eastward at least 25 miles from breeding areas in the San Bernardino Mountains, and occurring on August 24 at Lower Covington Flat and at Black Rock Spring on September 3 and 4, both locations in~ the Joshua Tree National Monument in high desert brushlands.

Bell’s sage sparrow is resident in the coastal ranges of California (Hayfork and French Gulch southward; extends to coast from Main County southward), on the western slope of the central Sierra Nevada of California (Eldorado County to Mariposa County), and in northwestern Baja California (south to lat. 29o3O~ N.; Santa Catarina Landing, intergrades with A. b. cirierea). Occurs casually east of the southern California mountains in Joshua Tree National Monument.

Contributed by ALDEN H. MILLER


This is a weakly differentiated race of sage sparrow, characterized in comparison with Amphispiza belli belli by “longer bill and lighter juvenal plumage” (Grinnell and Miller, 1944); in fresh plumage the adults possibly are lighter also (van Rossem, 1932b).

The race clementecse is known only from San Clemente Island off the coast of southern California. The earlier record for sage sparrows for Santa Rosa Island has been thrown in doubt (Miller, 1951b) and there has been no recent confirmation of the occurrence of the species on San Nicolas Island and never any indication of the presence of the race dementeae there.

On San Clemente Island, A. B. Howell (1917) reports that this sage sparrow “is common on the mesa lands back from the shore” and he and Laurence M. Huey “found several nests with pipped eggs and young the latter part of March, 1915. They were situated in scrubby brush a few inches above the ground.”

Joseph Grinnell (1897c) writes that these sparrows were “quite common on the hillsides and lower mesas where there is a low thorny bush growing in clumps and patches interspersed with cactus.” At the time of his visit, from March 28 to April 3, “the males were in full song, and dissection of females showed that eggs in most instances had already been laid. * * * The notes and habits of this bird were substantially the same as those [of A. 6. belli] about Pasadena.” Full grown juveniles were plentiful there on a later visit from May 28 to June 7. DISTRIBUTION

The San Clemente sage sparrow is resident on San Clemente Island off southern California.

Contributed by ALDEN H. MILLER


The race Amphispiza belli cirierea is the southernmost representative of the sage sparrows. It occupies the midsection of Baja California along the Pacific Coast between 29~ and 260 north latitude where it is a common resident of the Lower Sonoran Zone.

Ridgway (1901) says it is “Similar in size and proportions to A. 6. belli, but coloration conspicuously paler; above pale smoke gray or pale ashy gray, the back more decidedly tinged with bufly and obsoletely streaked with darker; lateral throat: stripes narrower, more interrupted, and dull grayish instead of blackish; spot in center of chest smaller and dusky grayish instead of blackish.” The coloration parallels that of the subspecies canescens but is a more brownish gray and the black markings are paler. The lesser coverts are yellowish brown.

Laurence M. Huey (1930b) in commenting on this form and the intergrades between it and A. b. belli, which he designated as the race zerophilu.s’, reports that cinerea occurs in proximity to the sea. lie says that it is “not cactus tolerant and * * * [is] not to be found beyond the range of certain types of coastal Lower Sonoran brush.” This consists chiefly of plants “of the genus Lycium, commonly called Frutila * * *” Chester C. Lamb met the gray sage sparrow in late May 1927 near the south end of Santa Rosalia Bay. The birds were found in the coastal sand dunes in low brush where ocotillo, yucca, agave and cactus also occurred. On May 30 he saw them feeding under bushes in the sand dunes and in open places among ice plants. The birds would come to a bush top when alarmed by a squeak. Juveniles were common and these young birds banded together in flocks of as many as a dozen individuals.

The gray sage sparrow is resident on the Pacific shores of middle Baja California from latitude 290 N., south to Ballenas Bay, lat. 26040/ N.

Contributed by ALDEN H. MILLER


The sage sparrow is typical of the sagebrush country of the Great Basin where it nests. Inconspicuous in its somewhat concealing color, and neither bold in actions nor in song, it may be overlooked on first exploration of its semidesert environment. The race nevczderisis is the most wide ranging and the most migratory of the several forms of sage sparrow. The coastal races, sharply demarked in range and in their darker color, are often referred to as Bell’s sparrows in contrast to the inland sage sparrows.

All the sage sparrows are ground dwellers, spending most of their time on sand, gravel pavement, and alkali hardpan between and beneath bushes, or if the ground they range over is not bare, it is not more than slightly grown to grass or littered with fallen leaves and twigs. When alarmed they mount to the bush tops briefly, only to drop out of sight again, skulking and running behind or among the bushes. Song posts invariably are on the bush tops.

The breeding range of the race nevadensis lies west of the Rocky Mountains and east of the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada, some 850 miles in its east-west dimension. It extends from the inner Columbia River basin of eastern Washington southeast to northwestern New Mexico for about 1,200 miles. in all this area the vegetation used chiefly by the sage sparrows is the dominant sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata). This widespread plant occurs generally in the areas classed as upper Sonoran and Transition life zones, ranging higher in places among open conifers. R. E. Snodgrass (1903) describes the habitat in Washington as “most refreshing ‘scab-land’ country. Such areas alternate with the wheat deserts * * * and occupy also a large space along the eastern edge of the Grand Coulee. On them there is scarcely any soil, only enough for sage-brush to grow. The surface is cut by erosion into irregular hollows, low hills, abrupt walls, ridges, and tower-like buttes.” Jean M. Linsdale (1938) states that in the Toiyabe Mountains area of central Nevada the sage sparrow occurs “throughout the bush-covered desert well up to the base of the mountains. * * * Sagebrush is a conspicuous feature in the habitat * * * but other bushes were occupied sometimes.” In one area of nesting beside the sagebrush there were “a few Chrysothamnus and about an equal number of Sareobatue. The soil was sandy but hard and cracked slightly. There was some cover of grass.~~ Near Prineville in central Oregon I camped on a desert flat among sage sparrows from June 19 to 21, 1938. Here, at an altitude of 3,300 feet, breeding pairs were in Artemisia and Chrysothamnus cover around the margins of a low area free of junipers. The soil was fairly loose, and in places it was distinctly sandy. Males at times sang from the tops of small juniper bushes but none was seen in the juniper woodland itself. ï Indicative of some extension beyond the typical sagebrush cover is Arthur C. Twomey’s (1942) report of nesting southeast of Vernal, Utah “in a hot, dry, sandy valley dominated by an Atriplex-Tetradymia Community.” In Colorado W. W. Cooke (1897) states that Tienshaw found the sage sparrow ranging up to 8,000 feet at San Luis Park, but this would be within the normal upper reaches of sagebrush growth.

Spring: The migration of this race of sage sparrow, although more definite than that of others, is neither conspicuous nor extensive. Not all parts of its breeding range are vacated by all individuals. Thus Ira N. Gabrielson and Stanley Jewett (1940) report a winter record on January 14 at Umatilla, Oreg., and sage sparrows occur in January in the Reno area of Nevada. They probably are resident generally in the southern parts of the breeding range, as in southwestern Utah. Nevertheless, there is a distinct influx of birds in spring to the nesting grounds.

Spring migratory movements are early. Stanley Jewett et al. (1953) comment on the early arrival of this sparrow in eastern Washington and state that nesting begins by late March; they note the presence of sage sparrows within the breeding range by February 28 and March 2 in different years. Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) state that sage sparrows arrive in March in eastern Oregon. Ross Hardy (1947) found them abundant in spring migration at Price, Utah, from March 17 until April 7.

Settlement on breeding territories obviously is later at high elevations than in the lower desert valleys. In some places the higher elevations apparently are not reached until April and early May.

Nesting: Jn keeping with the sage sparrow’s adherence to low bush cover, nests are usually concealed in Artemisia shrubs. Some are placed in a depression on the ground as Robert Ridgway (1877) reported, but this is a less usual although not rare situation. Most nests are 6 to 18 inches above the ground as Walter P. Taylor (1912) reported for Humboldt County, Nev. Data on eight other nests in the records of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology reveal only one other ground nest; the heights above ground of the others range from 3 to 40 inches (average 16%). All but one (in an Atriplez bush) were placed in or under Artemlsut.

Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) state for Oregon that “dates on which nests containing fresh eggs have been found vary from April 5 to May 23, depending somewhat on the elevation. The earliest dates are for the sage areas along the Columbia River near Boardman, and the later nests are found on the high sage plateaus of the southeastern part of the State.” But a nest with five young found near Boardinan on March 29, following a mild winter, must represent eggs laid no later than mid-March. Jewett et al. (1953) report that in Washington many nests of this species have eggs by late March. Near Prineville, Greg., I found a nest with three fresh eggs on June 19, a set completed to four eggs on or before June 21. This probably represented a replacement nest as other sage sparrows in the vicinity had fledged young at that time.

On the other hand what apparently are first layings occur in the higher sagebrush areas in parts of Nevada in early June, as attested to by data from Stewart, Ormsby County, 4,600 feet altitude, obtained by Milton S. Ray and by reports (Taylor, 1912) of nests and eggs as late as June 16 at Big Creek, 6,000 feet altitude, at the base of the Pine Forest Mountains in Humboldt County. A very late nest, doubtless a second effort, was recorded by E. R. Hall 13 miles north of Montello, 5,000 feet altitude, Elko County, Nev., on July 17; the nest held 3 eggs.

Walter P. Taylor (1912) writes that the nests above ground level were “variously supported, as a rule being built into the body of the bush so that the foundation was firm, although in some cases the attachment was not so secure. Materials worked into the several nests included dry sage twigs and sticks; in the linings, wool, dried grass, weed stalks, weed seeds, cowhair, and rabbit fur.” The nest I found near Prineville was not well concealed in the bush, but it was partly screened from the sun. It was made of grass and bark shreds, with some wool in the lining. The whole nest was larger and thicker-walled than those of Brewer’s sparrows and contained none of the coarse hair found in the nest lining of the latter species.

James B. Dixon writes me that a nest found at June lake, Mono County, Calif., on June 17 was in a bitter bush clipped down by feeding sheep, and was composed outwardly of bark strips from the bitter bushes and sagebrush and inwardly of fine bark with a few tufts of sheeps’ wool: a favorite lining.

A representative nest from Nye County, Nev., in the collection of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology has a scant outer frame of ~ inch Artemisia sticks and dry flowering stalks of annual plants, a core structure of grass stems and shredded bark, finer toward the interior, and a lining of rabbit fur and fine shreds of bark. The nest cups of five nests are 2 3~ inches across and 1 inch deep; outside dimensions are 4 to 7 inches across and 2 to ~ inches deep, varying in accordance with the amount of outside framework developed for a particular place in the supporting bush.

Russell W. Hendee (1929) reporting on sage sparrows in Moffat County, Cob., says that “Most of the nests were in sage bushes about a foot from the ground, but many were on the ground under the bushes. The nests were made of grass and lined with feathers and in some cases wool. The last set of fresh eggs was found on June 25.” The first eggs were found there on May 20.

Jean M. Linsdale (1938) discovered the nest he reported on in the Smoky Valley of Nevada on May 26 when a parent flushed at 4 feet. The bird “fluttered slightly and moved off, close to the ground, half running for 10 feet and then running for another 10 feet. It stayed within 25 feet of the nest for 3 or 4 minutes and then flew off. * * * During this interval the bird was quiet most of the time. It began to feed as it walked over the ground, part of the time picking off objects from the lower leaves of sage bushes.” On May 27 the third egg of the set in this nest had been laid and the incubating sparrow then sat very closely. Thus on May 28 it “would not leave the nest when the bush was hit with a stick.” Finally the bird was forced off and it then ran 25 feet over the ground with the tall elevated. Again on June 6 he “had to shake the bush violently before the bird would leave.” On the last visit to this nest at 9:00 a.m. on June 9, the young were hatching; one gaped for food; one was still lying in part of the shell and the third egg was unhatched. The incubation period was thus about 13 days, assuming that incubation started on May 26 when the sparrow was flushed from two eggs.

James B. Dixon wrote me also of a sage sparrow that would not flush until the nest bush was struck. All observers emphasize that the incubating bird normally flushes by dropping to the ground and running off. I noted in Oregon that the female ran quietly within 25 feet of us, holding the tail up, thrasherlike. Usually the parent is silent, or it utters the rather faint tsip alarm note, and then finally may alternate running on the ground and calling from bush tops, jerking the tail up periodically.

Eggs: The sage sparrow lays three or four eggs, rarely five. Specific records in the literature and data in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology for what are apparently completed clutches show 12 sets of three and 10 sets of. four. There are two records of five, one by William Leon Dawson (1909) and the other by Gabrielson and Jewett (1940).

The eggs are ovate. The ground color is pale blue or bluish white and the surface is speckled, spotted, and often blotched with “Verona brown,” “rood brown,” or “wood brown”; occasionally black dots and lines occur; undermarkings are “light neutral gray.” Spottings may be scattered over the entire surface or concentrated toward the large end, sometimes forming a crude wreath. On some the brown markings are sharply defined, whereas on others they are clouded and confluent. Thus there is considerable variation; frequently the undermarkings are lacking while in others they may be dominant and the brown spots pale and few.

The measurements of 70 eggs average 19.47 by 14.56 millimeters. The eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.2 by 14.9, 19.6 by 15.2, 18.2 by 15.1, and 18.8 by 13.7 millimeters.

Young: The sage sparrow’s young have pale natal down in general correlation with the prevailing paleness of the nest lining and the somewhat exposed nest location, as pointed out by Jean M. Linsdale (1936b). Young are fed insects by the adults, as generally is true in sparrows of the subfamily Emberizinae. J. M. Linsdale (1938) watched an adult feeding a bob-tailed young on the ground, the fledgling being able to fly distances of but 3 feet. “The parent moved about, jerking its tail upward slightly, as it picked up insects, within 10 feet of the young one” that was skulking under an Atriplez bush. Another adult, evidently the male of the pair, sang near by.

Near Prineville, Oreg., I found a short-tailed juvenile on June 19. It dodged under an Artemisia bush and as I approached began a vigorous flirting of wings and tail that made a distinct drumming sound. It kept this up for at least two minutes until I drove it from the bush. The adults came within 10 yards of me frequently, scolding with their high-pitched tsips.

Plumages: In the juvenal plumage the forehead and crown are gray, conspicuously streaked with black; on the nape and neck the streaks are less heavy but become broad and sharp again on the back and rump; the ground color of the latter areas is huffy gray. The streaked upper tail coverts are brown. The rectrices are black, the outer pair with light buff outer webs. The remiges are dull black, the primaries lightly edged and the inner secondaries broadly edged with dull cinaminon. The lesser wing coverts are light brown, the middle coverts blackish tipped with huffy white, and the greater coverts are blackish with broad buff edges and tips of huffy white; thus two light wing bars are formed. The eye ring is white, the lores and feathers below the eye dark. The feathers above the lores are whitish, the superciliary area gray. The chin and throat are white, faintly streaked, and with poorly defined black mustache marks separating the white subauricular area. The breast, sides, and flanks are whitish, conspicuously streaked with black. The lower belly and crissum are unstreaked, white to buff white; the leg feathers are brown and white.

The postjuvenal molt entails replacement of the body plumage and wing coverts but not the rectrices and remiges. It typically is completed early, by late Augu~t or early September, and the resulting plumage of the first winter is like that of adults; the sexes are the same in coloration.

In the adults the upper surface is gray, slightly buff-tipped in fresh plumage, the back and rump drab gray. The back is lightly streaked with black. The wings and tail are blackish, edged with clay to duli cinnamon color, the outer web and the tip of the inner web of the lateral tail feathers are white. The wing coverts are light brown, tipped with clay color to buff to form two wing bars. The bend of the wing is pale yellow. A supraloral spot, the eye ring, and the malar stripes are white; the lores, subocular area, the mustache mark, and the breast spot are black. The chin, breast and belly are white; the sides and flanks huffy and faintly streaked with dusky; the inaxilla blackish; mandible blue gray; feet dark brown; iris brown.

Food: George F. Knowlton (1937a) reporting on this species in Utah found that fifteen stomachs held the following: “4 grasshoppers; 18 Hemiptera, 13 being false chinch bugs; 68 Homoptera, made up of 64 nymphal and 4 adult beet leafhoppers in 3 birds; 6 Goleoptera in 4 stomachs; 1 lepidopterous caterpillar; 14 Hymenoptera, 9 being ants; 2 spiders; 301 weed seeds; plant fragments.” Such food could be obtained from the ground or low in bushes, especially in the summer season. Insects are probably taken rarely, or not at all in winter. In New Mexico, on December 2 and 3, N. S. Goss (1881) found that the stomachs of four birds contained only small seeds and coarse gravel.

James B. Dixon writes me that he has often seen these sparrows “on the ground * * * scratching and apparently securing food from the litter left in the dropped leaves of desert plants.” In general, however, the foraging is done by gleaning and not through scratching in the litter. In thus foraging they run swiftly, stopping now and then to pick up food particles. Jean M. Linsdale (1938), as noted earlier, saw a bird picking off objects from the lower leaves of sage bushes.

Behavior: Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) write that this sparrow is “difficult to detect so long as it remains motionless. Its habit of mounting the topmost twig of a sagebrush, however, to sing its tinkling little refrain, twitching its long black tail all the while, offers an opportunity to view this * * * desert dweller to good advantage. * * * ~~ has an almost uncanny ability to slip from one bush to another, keeping out of sight of an intruder as it does so.” H. W. Henshaw (1875) states that fall birds are very shy and are most often seen running with great agility among the bushes, their motions being so quick that they might readily be mistaken for mice. In running, their long tails are carried in a perpendicular position suggesting wrens. Ralph Hoffman (1927) states that even on the ground the bird jerks its tail from time to time, and N. S. Goss (1881) describes the birds as “very active, running about with tail steadily erected at an angle of 450, in an odd, easy, graceful manner.” Grinnell and Miller (1944) say that these sparrows “forage from the ground surface and parts of the bushes within reach of it and run swiftly from the base of one bush to another, seeking concealment. flight is resorted to when the bird is close pressed and at times when moving between lookout posts on bush tops or to and from nest sites in the bushes.” Jewett et al. (1953) stress the point that when an observer rushes to the spot where the bird disappears, he finds that it has run along the ground for several yards. “Each time it rises the sage sparrow follows a new course, so that one cannot be sure even of its general direction.”

There is little doubt that the long tail of this species and the upright position in which it is held serves as a balancer in the agile running actions. Also, the enlarged auditory bullae of the skull are probably related to this as they seem to occur in many running and hopping animals.

Voice: The song is a rather weak, high-pitched tinkling series of notes. Hoffman (~927) suggests the syllables tsit teit, tsi you, tee atee, the third note being high and accentuated. The flocking or contact note is similar to that of the flocking note of juncos, but is weaker. The alarm note tsip is only slightly louder. I do not know of other vocalizations that occur with any regularity, but Linsdale (1938) mentions once hearing a long series of harsh notes, the meaning of which is uncertain.

Field marks: Sage sparrows are identified by the dark narrow moustache marks and small black spot in the center of the breast, as well as by the white frontal spot and eye ring, coupled with the gray back and contrasting black tail. The tail flipping and its elevated position while on the ground are also good field characteristics and immediately distinguish the bird from the larger lark sparrow which has large white tail spots, though it shows a somewhat similar black breast spot.

Enemies and parasites: Richard M. Bond (1040) recorded the remains of a sage sparrow in the pellet of a horned owl in Nevada.

R. 0. Malcomson (1960) in a study of mallophaga mentions Bruelia lautiuscula as a parasite of the sage sparrow.

Henry J. Rust (1917) discovered and photographed a nest in Idaho that contained one egg of the sage sparrow and two of the brownheaded cowbird; this was on July 7. H. Friedmann (1963) commer~ts that as this is the only record in his files, the sage sparrow is a “very uncommon victim” of the cowbird.

Fall and Winter: S age sparrows congregate in late summer in loose flocks immediately after nesting and while they are carrying on the postnuptial or annual molt. The flocks wander in the fall and of course, as indicated earlier, not all of them migrate outside the breeding range. However, this race appears in late September and October on the more southerly wintering grounds. Harry S. Swarth (1924b) found them first arriving on September 25 in the San Francisco Mountain area of Arizona. “Ten days later a few more appeared and by October 17 they were present in fair abundance. At the end of the month * * * [they] had disappeared again,” possibly driven to lower levels by a storm. In Joshua Tree National Monument of southeastern California, Miller and Stebbins (1964) report that clear cut examples of this race were taken no earlier than October 22 and November 1. A. J. van Rossem (1911) found the species wintering abundantly in the Salton Sea area of California from December 1 to January 14, represented by both this race and caneseens. In the lowlands of southern Nevada, near the breeding range, winter flocks are present by October 6, according to van Rossem (1936a). Wilfred H. Osgood (1903) reports that in Cochise County, Ariz., they are “very common during the winter months” and are “seen in flocks about the leafless mesquites till about the middle of March.”

The habitat frequented in winter is more varied than in summer and consists of sparse desert scrub in the main with a variety of plants, including tree yuccas, Atriplex, Sarcobatus, mesquites, and Chrysothamn us. Johnson, Bryant, and Miller (1948) found these sparrows frequenting areas of open bunch grass as well as the creosote bush association in the Providence Mountains in the Mohave Desert in winter.

Range: Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana to northwestern Mexico and western Texas.

Breeding Range: The northern sage sparrow breeds from central eastern Washington (Waterville, Wilbur), southern Idaho (Deer Flat, Spencer), southwestern Wyoming (23 miles southwest of Bitter Creek), and northwestern Colorado (Moffat County) south to northeastern California (Sierra Valley, Mono Lake), south central and southeastern Nevada (Toiyabe and Charleston mountains) southwestern Utah (Pine Valley), northeastern Arizona (ilopi Buttes), and northwestern New Mexico (Gallina).

Winter Range: Winters from central California (Los Bafios, Raisin)~ central Nevada (Reno), southwestern Utah (St. George), northern Arizona (Tonalea), central New Mexico (Carlsbad), and southwestern Kansas (Morton and Seward counties), south to northern Baja California (San Andr~s, Puerto de Calamaju6), northern Sonora (Kino Bay), northwestern Chihuahua (Casas Grandes), and western Texas (Fort Davis). Occasionally remains north up to Oregon (Umatilla).

Casual records: West of the Cascade Range it has occurred in British Columbia (Lulu Island), Washington (Dupont), and Oregon (Portland) and cast of the Rocky Mountains in Montana (Sedan) and Wyoming (Wheatland, Cheyenne). Migrates along the east base of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.

Migration: The data deal with the species as a whole. Early dates of spring arrival: Utah: March 2. Wyoming: Superior, April 2. Idaho: Pocatello, March 18. Oregon: Lake County, March 17. Washington: Pierce County, February 27.

Late dates of spring departure are: New Mexico: Organ Mountains, April 25. Arizona: Mercury, April 27.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Arizona: Mercury, October 1. New Mexico: Ojo Caliente, September 21.

Late dates of fall departure are: Washington: Grant County, November 4. Oregon: Maiheur National Wildlife Refuge, October 1. Idaho: Rupert, September 16. Wyoming: Rock Creek, October 25. Utah: Book Cliffs, October 10.

Egg dates: (The data concern the species as a whole.) California: 17 records, March 29 to July 6; 9 records, May 7 to June 6. Colorado: 2 records, May 20 and June 25. Idaho: 2 records, June 25 and July 7. Nevada: 7 records, April 1 to June 14. Oregon: 7 records, May 9 to June 18. Washington: 3 records, March 25 to April 13.

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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