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Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow

Commonly known as Saltmarsh Sparrows, these small birds are in a threatened state due to habitat loss.

The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow is a coastal species once considered to be the same species as the inland birds that are now separated as the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow. The salt marsh habitat of the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow can be a treacherous place, with storm surges flooding active nests during the breeding season.

Unlike most songbirds, the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow is not territorial. Home ranges are used for foraging, but can overlap with those of other neighbors. Females typically have smaller home ranges than males.


Description of the Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow


The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow has a dark back streaked with white, a gray crown and plain gray nape, a bright orange supercilium and streaked, orange breast contrasting with a white belly.  Like all Ammodramus sparrows, the short tail is evident in flight.


Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles have more orange on the underparts.


Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows inhabit coastal marshes.


Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows eat insects and some seeds.


Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows forage on the ground or within marsh plants.


Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows breed locally along the northern half of the U.S. Atlantic Coast. They winter along the Atlantic and Florida Gulf Coasts of the U.S. The population may be stable, but is threatened given its limited range.

Fun Facts

Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows have an unusual breeding strategy. Males do not defend territories, instead wandering around in search of females with which to mate, and not assisting with incubation or brood rearing.

The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow was formerly considered conspecific with the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow.


The song consists of a soft, wheezy, gurgling sequence. A sharp “tik” call is given as well.

Similar Species

  • The LeConte’s Sparrow has an orange supercilium but a gray nape with rufous streaking, and Savannah Sparrows are heavily streaked below. Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows have a shorter bill and lack the fine, black streaking at the rear of the supercilium shown by Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrows.


The Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow’s nest is a cup of grasses and is lined with finer materials. It is placed in marsh vegetation.
Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: Whitish or greenish with darker markings.Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11-13 days, and fledge at about 10 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time

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

(Current AOU – Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow)



The Acadian sharp-tailed sparrow (Ammospiza caudacuta subvirgata) is the name applied by Jonathan Dwight in 1887 to the pale grayish race of the sharp-tailed sparrow breeding in the maritime provinces of Canada, the type locality being Hillsborough, Albert County, New Brunswick. It breeds from Phippsburg, Maine, northeast along the coastline of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspe Peninsula and west along the south bank of the St. Lawrence to Kamouraska. There is one questionable report from the Magdalen Islands, but none from Anticosti Island, Newfoundland, or Labrador.

Spring: The Acadian sharp-tailed sparrow is one of the latest of spring migrants. The last birds have left South Carolina by May 29 (Sprimt. and Chamberlain, 1949). A. D. Cruickshank (1942) reported stragglers as early as April 25 in New York but the main flight is the end of May to June 9. In Massachusetts, Griscom and Snyder (1955) report that the earliest date is May 15 and the latest June 15, the bulk of the birds passing through about June 1. No reliable data on dates of arrival on the breeding grounds are available; the statement of J. Macoun (1900) that they arrive in April must be rejected.

Territory: The breeding habitat of the Acadian sharp-tail shows more variation than that of any other race of the species. In Maine it is found where the glacial moraine landscape gives way to rocky promontories. A. H. Norton (1897) describes it thus: “North of Scarboro’, beginning with Cape Elizabeth *** the coast presents an uneven or hilly face of rocks, indented with coves and bays, studded with dry ledgey islands. Between the hills are innumerable arms of the sea often extending as ‘tide rivers’ or fjords several miles inland, bordered by narrow swales rather than broad expanses of marsh. Coincident with those features is the low spruce woods, so conspicuous a feature of the Maine coast, so characteristic of the scanty soiled granite ridges, and the fog drenched coast of the northeast.”

So small are these marshes that from their centers hermit thrushes and olive-sided flycatchers may be heard singing on the neighboring spruce-covered ridges. These marshes are well drained and subject to daily tidal flooding only to the grass roots. They are occupied by the same plants as farther south, Spartina alterniflora on the wetter edges, and Spartina patens, Juncus gerardi, and Triglochin mantima.

On Grand Manan Island, 0. 5. Pettingill (1936) found the sharptails in an “ill smelling marsh at Castalia that is gouged in t~ypical fashion by tidal channels and stagnant sloughs.” To the eastward, the marshes become gradually less salt. Near Sackvifle, New Brunswick (C. S. Robbins and G. F. Boyer. 1953), as in the Petitcodiac valley (J. Dwight, 1896), the meadows are diked for the cultivation of hay. Spartina pectinata. is the dominant plant and grows luxuriantly, but along the ditches where brackish water occasionally backs up, Juncus gerardi, Triglochin maritima, Puccin cilia maritima, and a few patches of Salicornia euro pea also occur. The sharp-tails were noted in both fresh and brackish portions of the marsh. Savannah sparrows and bobolinks were in close proximity, but were nesting only along the dikes wbich supported a different plant community. In the study area at Sackville, the density of ~ubvirgata was five pairs m 26.6 acres. Elsewhere in New Brunswick, Dwight (1887) found them “along a swampy brook fully a mile from salt water, fraternizing with Swamp Sparrows and * * * Yellowthroats among the alder bushes.” C. W. Townsend (1912a) reported them in the St. John valley in an entirely fresh water environment that included arrowhead and white pond lilies. Moore (in Squires, 1952) found them in the same valley breeding on islands above Fredericton, N.S., nearly 100 miles from the sea.

About the area farther north, Jonathan Dwight (1896) says: “Quite different are the salt marshes of Prince Edward Island and of the St. Lawrence * * ~ There short grass, bogs and few ditches are the rule, though the birds seem equally at home.” Elsewhere on Prince Edward Island, William Brewster (1877) reported them at Tignish in “a wide waste of marsh, dry, and at some distance from the sea, grown up to bushes, with scattered dead pine stubs, remnants of a former forest.”

At Corner-of-the-Beach near Perc~ on the Gasp6 Peninsula, L. M. Terrill (in litt.) found them “along the Portage River * * * nearly a mile from the St. Lawrence. This extensive area of marsh * * * was somewhat brackish, being subject to tidal flow up the streams which meander through it. * * * Dense stands of the bulrush, Scirpus vatidus, formed the principal growth in the areas occupied by the Sharp-tail. Nesting associates included several ducks, notably the Pintail, Wilson’s Snipe, American Bittern, Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow Rail, a few Red-winged Blackbirds and numerous Swamp Sparrows.” R. C. Clement (in litt.) found them at Kamouraska, the westernmost breeding station, in “a lush meadow of tall grasses (Calamogrostris and Elymus)” and also “in a higher but still moist meadow of flags (Iris versicolor and I. setosa) and cinquefoils (Potentilla palustris).” This is obviously a completely fresh-water habitat.

Nesting: A. H. Norton (1927) found a nest at Phippsburg, Maine. “The nest was completely covered by the reclining mat of Spartina pakn8 and was entered and left by a narrow passage parallel with the direction of the cuims of that grass. It was suspended by the sides from the cuims of the ‘thatch,’ Spartina alterniftora, with its bottom about two centimeters above the wet soggy ground.” This nest externally measured 80 mm. deep, 100 mm. long, and 90 mm. wide. It was constructed of blades of S. alter’niflora and cuims of S. patens and lined with fine blades of S. patens~ H. F. Lewis (1920) describes a nest found at Yarmouth, Nova Scotia:

The nest proper was a neat, round cup of fine, dry grass, with some horsehair in the lining. Its foundation consisted of some small masses of “eel-grass” and roots. Us dimensions were: inside diameter, 2.5 inches; outside diameter, 4.5 inches; inside depth, 1.5 inches; outside depth, 2.375 inches. It was elevated above the general surface of the marsh by being placed on the top of a low grassy ridge, about 14 inches high, formed from material thrown up when a ditch was dug across the marsh, many years before. During some storm, a mat of dead “eel-grass” had been left on the top of this ridge, and this had been later lifted by the growing marsh grass, leaving several inches between it and the ground. The nest was placed at the northwest edge of this mat, about half the nest being under it, while the other side was sheltered and concealed by grass about 6 inches high. The nest was not sunk in the ground at all.

Eggs: Four to five eggs form the complete set. The appearance of the eggs is identical with those of A. c. caudacuta. The measurements of 40 eggs average 19.7 by 14.9 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.1 by 14.9, 20.0 by 15.9, 17.9 by 14.3, and 18.6 by 13.6 millimeters.

Young: : A. H. Norton (1897) states that incubation is performed by the female alone; the length of incubation is not known. Jonathan Dwight (in F. M. Chapman, 1896) and W. La Brie (1931) both comment on the absence of anxiety of the adults over the nest and young, and L. M. Terrill (in litt.) thinks that nearby Savannah sparrows showed more concern than the true parents when a sharp-tail’s nest was found. Both parents are said to feed the young; this seems unlikely in view of the findings of G. E. Woolfenden (1956) with A. c. caudacuja.

Plumages: The pattern of the adult plumage is clearly that of a sharp-tailed sparrow but the colors are paler and grayer and the breast streaking less distinct than in A. c. caudacuta. The molts are the same as in that subspecies. R. R. Graber (pers. comm.) has supplied information on other plumages as follows:

“Natal down: The natal down varies from brownish black on the head to mouse gray on the rump. Juvenal plumage: No sexual dimorphism. Crown black, with broad median and superciliary stripes of rich olive-tinged buff. Nape rust-tinged buff, unstreaked. Feathers of back black, broadly edged with rich buff. Rump and upper tail coverts rich bull, obscurely marked with black. Rectrices olive gray with black shafts. Remiges black, primaries edged with gray, tertials with rich buff as are coverts. Throughout upperparts, bull coloration distinctly tinged with olive. Lores and eye-ring buff, like superciliary. Auriculars brown, partially margined with black post-ocular stripe. Sub- and post-auriculars rich buff. Underparts rich orangish bull (lightest on belly). Sides of chest with few obscure black streaks. Underparts otherwise immaculate.”

The identification and field marks of this subspecies are discussed in the life history of A. c. caudacuta.

Food: As in A. c. caudacuta, the summer diet contains a high proportion of insect food, which decreases somewhat in winter. 0. W. Knight (1908) describes the contents of five stomachs of subrnrgata as “Nemertean worms, beetles, * * * unidentifiable flies, * * * beetle larvae and sand with a little vegetable matter which was seemingly extraneous.” H. F. Lewis (1920) teUs of the birds visiting an upland hayfield near their marsh to feed.

Behavior: In general, this subspecies behaves similarly to A. e. caudacuta. J. Dwight (1896) says: “They may fly considerable distances when disturbed, but they are more likely to dive into the grass and defy all efforts to again flush them.” J. Macoun (1900) mentions that “They feed about the margins of pools of still water where they seem to procure aquatic insects and grass seeds.”

Where its range borders the Bay of Fundy, this subspecies must adapt to a very large tidal rise and fall. In July 1965 I watched two broods in the marshes below Truro, Nova Scotia, each brood being fed by a single parent. The young were able to fly short distances, but they stayed in the grass on the upper levels where the marsh showed no evidence of recent flooding, while the parents foraged on mud banks along the channels 15 or more feet below the marsh. The rising tide steadily narrowed the foraging area, but the birds did not forage in the grass until the mud was submerged. Each parent returned with food about every 45 seconds and fed whichever immature was most vociferous. I could not determine the nature of the food.

Observing the bird on migration at Revere, Mass., William Brewster (MS.) writes:

“All were seen in tall sedge on the edge of the water, none on the open marsh or about the salt pools where caudacutus breeds * * ~ Flight slightly undulating and beelike, the wings beating rapidly like a bumble bee.

“We usually started the birds: sometimes singly, frequently in twos, occasionally three or four together: from the matted sedge. * * * They would at first fly only a few rods along the bank and then almost invariably pitch down into the creek and alight on the mud under the overhanging bank. *** Frequently, they would dip beneath the bank at once and perform their flight close over the mud or water. * * * [When pressed] they would either double back past us or fly out into the marsh and drop into the short grass.

“After the first flight * * * the bird would rim only a few yards and * * * show himself on the mud or eel grass near the middle of the creek, hopping slowly about and feeding, every now and then standing erect and still to look about him, or, climbing the steep bank, would raise his head and breast among the grass and remain for several minutes perfectly motionless, evidently aware that. his bully head and and cheeks matched the color of the bleached sedges sufficiently closely to make him fairly secure from detection.”

Voice: The song of the Acadian sharp-tail is of the sa~ne pattern as that of A. c. cauda~~uta, a short hiss preceded or followed by one or more sharper notes. They seem to sing more frequently than the more southern birds; C. W. Townsend (1905) heard one sing “fifteen times in a minute by the watch.” The flight song is more elaborate; as 0. S. Pettingill (1936) says: “Each began his flight performance by rushing several feet skyward, giving, during the descent, a suggestion of a song, though it resembled more the sizzling sound made when a cap is slowly removed from a bottle of ginger ale.” A. H. Norton said they may rise as high as thirty feet. Of the perching song, Jonathan Dwight (1887) writes: “Even their song is inaudible at the distance of a few yards, and at its best is suggestive of the bird’s being choked in the attempt. * * * It is usually delivered from the top of a weed, where, as the bird sits crouching, he presents an absurd appearance of ill-concealed fright.” W. Montagna (1940) reports that they sing mostly in the morning, the frequency was decreasing by noon and stopping altogether by mid-afternoon. There is occasional singing in the evening. He heard the song regularly to July 25 and more rarely to August 14.

Fall: R. S. Palmer (1949) mentions that there is some premigration wandering in the fall. This race moves south a little later than A. c. caudacuta, the maximum counts in Massachusetts being in the first ten days of October, stragglers remaining into November. In New York, the peak is in the last week of October and stragglers are present into December.

The main migration route of t~his subspecies is along the coast, but it clings to the coast of the mainland. It is less common on outer Cape Cod (Hill, 1965), Nantucket (Griscom and Folger, 1948), and Martha’s Vineyard (Griscom and Emerson, 1959) than in Essex County, inner Cape Cod, or Dartmouth, Mass.

Though the great bulk of migrants of this race move along the coast, some go overland across New England, presumably those occupying the more western colonies along the St. Lawrence. Inland sight records are unacceptable because of possible confusion with altera. However, W. E. C. Todd (Griscom and Snyder, 1955) identified a specimen from Wayland, Mass., as subvirgakz and I consider that several others in the Museum of Comparative Zoology from Wayland and from Sing Sing, N.Y., are 571 bvirgata, as well as the specimen from Longmeadow, Mass., taken Oct. 6,1908 (12157 in the Springfield Museum), reported by R. 0. Morris (1909) and Bagg and Eliot (1937). I also examined the Clarendon, Vt., specimen taken Oct. 8, 1917 (12403 in the Boston Museum of Science) originally reported as nelsoni (G. L. Kirk, 1917) and then as subsirgata (Bagg and Eliot, 1937); I consider it a typical altera. Farther west, specimens taken at Ithaca, N.Y., have been rechecked for me by K. C. Parkes who considers them attera. It may be suspected that all the far inland records of this race will turn out similarly.

Winter: This race winters along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida, with individuals of all the other races. Over a century ago Audubon (1841) noted their grayer appearance, and remarked that some sharp-tails “were so pale as almost to tempt one to pronounce them a different species.” I have found no reports of this race on the Gulf Coast. A few scattered birds attempt to winter along the coast as far north as Massachusetts.

Range: Southern Quebec and Maritime Provinces south to northern Florida.

Breeding Range: The Acadian sharp-tailed sparrow breeds locally m brackish and salt marshes of southern Quebec (southern side of the lower St. Lawrence Valley, Kamouraska, Riviere du Loup), New Brunswick (Petitcodiac River, Hampton), Prince Edward Island (Tignish), Nova Scotia (Cape Breton Island, Barrington), and eastern Maine (southwest to Popham Beach).

Winter Range: Winters in coastal marshes from South Carolina (Charleston County) southward to northern Florida; casually north to New York (Long Island); in migration along the Atlantic seaboard.

Egg dates: Nova Scotia: 27 records, June 8 to July 4; 16 records, June 19 to June 25.


Contributed by NORMAN P. HILL

The sharp-tailed sparrows are retiring and wary inhabitants of Atlantic coastal and some inland marshes; however, though common or even locally abundant, they are little known. The casual visitor to the seashore has scant reason to roam through the mud, silt, and grass of their habitat. Hence these birds remain secure and unobserved except by boatmen and hunters who know them as “grass finches.” Even when one is accidentafly flushed, it quickly drops back into cover and patient field work is needed to provide a satisfactory study of this handsome but mouselike bird.

‘rho sharp-tailed sparrow as a species occupies as its breeding grounds a great, though discontinuous arc in eastern and north-central North America. This extends from Virginia northeastward to the St. Lawrence River, then skipping a gap of unsuitable territory, northwestward to James Bay and, finally skipping another gap, westward to the Canadian prairie provinces. Within this area the A.O.U. Check-List now recognizes five distinct populations or subspecies, each varying slightly from the other morphologically, mainly m color. In their life histories, habits, and behavior the five forms vary but little. Hence most of the available information on t.he nesting, food, enemies, and other essentials shared by all five are presented here under the nominate race, which also happens to be probably the best known and most thoroughly studied of the five subspecies.

The sharp-tail and the congeneric seaside sparrows are members of the “grassland group” of Emberizine finches. This group, which also includes the genera Passerculus (Ipswich and Savannah sparrows), Ammodramus (grasshopper and Baird’s sparrows), and Passerherbulus (Le Conte’s and ilenslow’s sparrows), is fairly well separated from all other finches in habits and morphology as well as in habitat. The sharp-tails and seasides may be considered the salt-marsh representatives of the group, though each is occasionally found in fresh water marsh habitats, the sharp-tails more so than the seasides.

That the sharp-tails and seasides are closely related cannot be questioned. Though each occupies a separate niche in the same marshes as regards nesting sites and feeding habits, they share many similarities in appearance, song, behavior, and food. In 1928 a male seaside sparrow spent the early summer in a sharp-tail colony in Revere, Mass., and was observed trying to copulate with a female sharp-tail (Ludlow Griscom, pers. comm.). In New Jersey, W. Montagna (1942a) collected a male sharp-tail and a female seaside apparently in copulation. Sage, Bishop, and Bliss (1913) recorded a female hybrid of the sharp-tail and the seaside taken near New Haven, Conn., May 1, 1890; I have examined this specimen in the Museum of Comparative Zoology and agree with their diagnosis. In 1957 in an area occupied by both species in Bariistahle, Mass., I studied a bird which appeared identical with this specimen and which I believe was another hybrid. No hybrid of either the sharp. tail or the seaside with any other species has ever been recorded, to the best of my knowledge.

It seems likely that the southern Atlantic coast, where all five subspecies of the sharp-tailed sparrow now winter, was the Pleistocene breeding refuge of the then undifferentiated species. With the retreat of the glacial front, the sharp-tails followed the development of marshes northward along the coast, and eventually responded to the new environments by subspeciating. W. J. Beecher (1955) pointed out that the existence of the now isolated James Bay and Nelson’s races may be accounted for by the former occurrence of a marine corridor via the St. Lawrence and either the Ottawa or Saguenay Rivers to James Bay, and thence westward to Lake Winnipeg, this being permitted by the temporary downward warping of the earth’s crust by the weight of the ice. There is both geological and botanical evidence for the existence of such a corridor.

Spring: In spring it is impossible to tell when the first sharp-tails leave their wintering grounds on the southern Atlantic coast and difficult to identify the first arriving migrants because of possible confusion with wintering stragglers. Sprunt and Chamberlain (1949) stated that all have left South Carolina by May 16. The latest record for coastal Alabama is May 16, 1911 (Imhof, 1962). Witmer Stone (1937) believed the first migrants appeared at Cape May as early as April 11. A. D. Cruickshank (1942) reported the first on Long Island at about the same time, although the first real wave never comes prior to April 25 and the bulk of the birds arrive in May. In Massachusetts (Griscom and Snyder, 1955) the earliest strays have appeared by May 9, these being scattered single birds, the main arrival being between May 23 and June 1. The date of arrival in Massachusetts seems to be correlated with the new green growth of Spartina; when this reaches about six inches, the sharp-tails appear.

The eastern sharp-tailed sparrow migrates along the coast. I have seen only one specimen from a truly inland locality, a bird taken May 30, 1952, in Wayland, Mass. The species migrates at night, and I have had the experience of finding them one morning in a marsh where none were present the day before.

Habitat: The breeding range of A. c. caudaeuta (type locality, New York) is strictly coastal, extending from near Tuckerton, N.J., where the population intergrades with A. e. diversa, north to Scarboro, Maine, where it intergrades with A. e. subrirgata. The southern limit coincides roughly with the southern limit of glaciation and the northern with a shift from morainal to rocky substrate. This section of the eastern seaboard is characterized by glacial deposits, chiefly moraines, both terminal and recessional, with their outwash plains.

The sharp-tails dwell in the wide green salt marshes, soft and meadowlike, that are usually enclosed by low-terraced barrier beaches, often with a line of sand dunes interposed between the beach and the marsh. Back of the marshes the uplands rise gradually in more terraces and low rounded hills, usually of gravel interspersed with boulders and often supporting a broad-leafed forest. These marshes are of fine black silt, often seemingly bottomless, with some mixture of sand along the creeks and tidal channels that interlace them. In William Brewster’s (MS.) words: “Narrow winding creeks intersect the marsh in every direction. Near their mouths these creeks are often 15 or 20 feet wide, but they narrow rapidly as one follows them back and frequently branch into several still smaller ones, which are lost altogether in subterranean passages or take their rise in little pools or swampy areas a few yards square. Their depth is very uniformly about 5 feet, with muddy banks of about 4 feet, and from the edge of the banks a gentle incline up to the level of the salt marsh. At high tide these creeks are nearly or quite bank full; at low tide the water is only a few inches deep with black mud and eel grass exposed in many places. The banks are always at least perpendicular and usually more or less overhanging, the water eating them out beneath.”

The intricacy of the winding and twisting pattern taken by these creeks and the rapidity with which they narrow to small channels is most appreciated when viewed from the air.

The plants of these marshes form a stable climax community. Regarding them, C. XV. Townsend (1905) writes:

From a botanical point of view the salt marshes can be divided into three distinct regions. First, the region of the coarse salt-grass (Spartina stricta) (~S. alterniflora] everywhere in Essex County called “thatch,” which flourishes on the edges of the creeks only, washed by every tide. It grows to a height of four or five feet. * * * The second region is that of the salt-grass or marsh hay (Puccinellia maritima and ,Spartina palens), a region reached by tides once or twice a month at full or new moon. This grass rarely grows more than ten or twelve inches in height. * * * Among the salt-grass grow patches of samphire (Salicornia herbacea) [=’ S. euro peal. The marsh rosemary (Ste tice limonium, var. caroliaiaaa) [=Limonium caroliniana] is common, and the grass-like seaside plantain (PlaMago decipiens). The third region is the upper edge of the marsh where it joins the uplands, a region visited only by the unusual spring and autumn tides. Here grows the “blackgrass,” in reality a rush (.Juncus gerardi) which gives the edges a distinctly dark color, almost black when the rush is in fruit. * * * In the channels of the creeks grows the eel-grass (7ostera marina) commonly mistaken for a seaweed but in rïeality a flowering plant.

In addition to the living grass which tends to lean over and form mats, iow windrows of dried and matted thatch torn off by the winter storms are deposited in the upper and middle regions by the tides, mixed with driftwood, seaweed, and all kinds of flotsam and jetsam cast up by the sea. These mats and windrows form an important shelter and hiding place for the sharp-tailed sparrows.

On the Long Island marshes, which are the center of abundance of this subspecies, and in New Jersey, the sharp-tails are found in the drier spots in Spartina patens, whereas the seaside sparrows are confined to the coarser, taller, and sparser Spartina alterniflora in the wetter areas. I have found the same to be true in Barnstable, Mass., where both birds occur, hut elsewhere in Massachusetts where the seaside is absent or at least very rare, the sharp-tails tend to move into the taller grasses. They do not, however, go into the very tall coarse sedge during the breeding season, though numbers of migrants are found there in the spring and particularly in t.he fall. 0. E. Woolfenden (1956) noted that sharp-tailed sparrows seem to be less restricted in type of feeding habitat than seasides in that they feed in the thick grass, along the perimeter of the marsh and on the banks of pools and creeks.

The eastern sharp-tail’s range is coastal and essentially linear, seldom more than a mile wide and often interrupted by unsuitable shoreline. The exceptions to this occur where suitable marshes may be found inland alonE estuaries. Probably the best known of these are the Piermont marshes in New York, 30 miles up the Hudson River from the Narrows, which formerly supported a colony of sharptailed sparrows that was apparently extirpated by pollution about 1930. The birds have also followed Narragansett Bay inland and nest there 15 or 20 miles from the sea. These inland marshes, and indeed some marshes around shore ponds, contain practically fresh water, but their vegetation is always that typical of the salt marsh, indicating that the spring tides bring in sufficient sea water to eliminate plants less tolerant of salt.

Regarding its local distribution, Ludlow Griscom (in W. Montagna, 1942) noted: “One of the curious things about the Sharp-tailed Sparrow * * * is that as you proceed northward the bird tends to become local. In a good marsh on the south shore of Long Island, for instance, Sharp-tails are ubiquitous and abundant. By the time you reach the coast of Massachusetts north of Boston,* * * for no known reason the Sharp-tail is not ubiquitous. There will be a colony here and there along the bank of some tidal creek when, for all you can see, the Sharp-tails might just as well as not be up and down the entire length of the creek.” Counts of such colonies I have made at Plum Island, Barnstable, Monomoy, and Dartmouth, Mass., and Tiverton, R.I., show they may contain 3 to 15 pairs with a density of 1 to 1.5 pairs per acre, and the colonies may be a half mile to a mile apart. At Barnstable the total number, the sum of many such colonies, is about 1,000 pairs (Hill, 1965). Breeding birds with which they are associated include American bittern, black duck, marsh hawk, clapper rail, and seaside sparrow. Savannah sparrow and meadowlark areas fringe on the sharp-tails, and several species each of gulls, terns, and swallows are overhead.

Territory and courtship: The sharp-tailed sparrow apparently does not establish a breeding territory in the usual sense of the term. In his study of banded birds in a New Jersey marsh, Woolfenden (1956) found that “Marking made it evident that the males were not territorial, although they did confine, themselves to what might appropriately be called a breeding home range, the area to which an individual confines itself in the course of one nesting attempt. Observations of marked birds also indicated that there was considerable overlap of the breeding home ranges of individual males.” He estimated that each male ranged over about four acres, none of which he actually defended, and that the individual females restricted themselves to less than one acre in the vicinity of the nest. This, and the relative reticence and stealthy actions of the nesting females, largely account for the apparent unbalanced sex ratio of three or four males to one female observed by Montagna (1940) in Maine and by my own random collecting in Massachusetts during the nesting season.

Reflecting this comparative lack of territoriality, the species apparently has little if any special courtship behavior. Montagna (1942a) noted occasional fighting between males in Virgini a(sodetermined by collecting the fighting pair), which he assumed were over a female.” In his observations on szThvirgata in Maine, the same author (1940) noted that “Male birds, as many as three, were seen crowding over one female, perhaps attempting to copulate. * * * Repeatedly birds were seen copulating immediately after the males’ descent from the song flight.” At Barnstable, Mass., I have several times seen a male simply fly to a female feeding on the mud and copulate without any preliminary display. The female squatted and partially spread her wings as the male mounted her back with fluttering wings for a brief moment and consummated the act. As Woolfenden (1956) remarked, this species is “promiscuous, relations between the sexes being limited to copulation.”

Nesting: The nest of the sharp-tailed sparrow is one of the most difficult to discover. Yet, William Brewster (MS.) found no less than seven in one day, June 19, 1890, at Revere, Mass.: “All seven nests were similar in composition but they varied widely in position and surroundings. Two were placed squarely on the ground within 20 yards of one another, one in the middle of a dense matted bed of Ju~’wus gerardi well above the reach of the tides on one of the highest points in the marsh, the other near the edge of a tide creek barely above high-water mark among the coarse sedge that grows along these creeks. Both of these nests were perfectly concealed from above and every side, the first by living erect grass which grew almost as densely as fur on an otter’s back and to a height of about 20 inches, the second by a broken down bunch of dry sedge under which there was barely room for the bird to enter.

“The other five nests were all raised well above the ground among the upright stems of the coarse sedges, the clear space beneath their bottoms varying from one to three or four inches. Four of them were perfectly concealed from above as well as from all sides, three by the tops of the clustering grasses in which they were placed, the fourth by a mat of drift sedge which had been lodged on the tops of the grasses by an unusually high tide. This last nest was in the middle of a bed of coarse creek sedge. * * * The other nests were among the fine salt grass on the edge of salt ponds. * * * The seventh nest was on the edge of a ditch built in the very top of a clump of fine short dry grass and as open above as the nest of a Red-winged Blackbird.”

Of another occasion, on June 25, 1890, at Falmouth, Mass., he writes (MS.): “The nests were all built among the stems of short, upright grasses, their bottoms 2 or 3 inches above the ground, which was wet and shiny but in no instance actually covered with water. One nest was under a broad flake of broken down grass cemented together into a firm mat by dried mud or slime. On one side, however, it was entirely open so that the eggs could be easily seen from a distance of several yards. Another nest was under a similar mat of slime-glued dead grass and leaves, but not trusting to this alone, the bird had bent down the living grass on every side interweaving the tips so as to form a perfect screen as well as a canopy extending out an inch or more over the entrance which was a hole on the side. * * * The third nest was among short wirey grasses, about half green, half dry, the tops of which were bent down and interwoven so as to form a perfect dome-shaped roof nearly as solid and thick as that of a Marsh Wren’s nest.”

The nests I have found at Barnstable, Mass., have all been in Spartina pate’ns, two in the center of pure growth about 10 inches high and one in lower growth near the edge of a tidal channel where Spartirur alterniflora was beginning to appear. They were raised 2 or 3 inches above the ground, which was very moist, and each was sheltered overhead by a tuft of dead brown grass which was not woven together in any way. These nests were very clean, no excrement in or around them and no parasites found; they contained respectively newly hatched young, a fresh set of eggs, and well fledged young. The adult birds flushed directly from the nest without a sound, there being no runway through the grass as has been described by other observers. Some observers have noted that nests may be placed in depressions in the ground apparently excavated for the purpose.

According to H. 0. Greene (1935), the nests are more or less spherical and measure 3)~ to 4 inches high by 3)~ to 434 inches in diameter externally, the cavity being 2 to 234 inches wide and 134 to 2 inches deep. They are made of coarse dry grasses and seaweed inexpertly woven together with many loose ends protruding tangentially in all directions and are lined with finer similar material. The nest is considered more bulky than that of the seaside sparrow. My observations agree with this description and measurements, the material used being exclusively Spartina patens, however. The female alone builds the nest and, as Woolfenden (1956) surmised, the males probably “do not even know where nests are.”

Eggs: The usual set of the species is three to five, occasionally six and rarely seven eggs. They are ovate and have a slight gloss. The ground is greenish-white profusely specked and spotted with “snuff brown,” “russet,” “Brussels brown,” or “auburn.” The underlying spots are “pale purplish gray.” Usually the markings are well scattered over the entire surface. On some the speckles are so thick they are confluent, obscuring the ground and giving the egg a “deep brownish drab” appearance; on others the spots are sharp and distinct. In series the eggs are noticeably smaller than those of the seaside sparrow and the markings tend to be much finer. The measurements of 105 eggs of the species average 19.4 by 14.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.1 by 14.9, 17.8 by 15.2, 20.0 by 15.9, and 20.8 by 18.2 millimeters. The measurements of 50 eggs of A. e. caudata average 19.3 by 14.5 millimeters; those showing the four extremes measure 21.0 by 14.5, 17.8 by 15.2, and 20.8 by 13.2 millimeters.

Four or five eggs form the usual set in New England (Brewster, MS.), and three are more usual in New Jersey (Woolfenden, 1956). Reportedly the species usually rears two broods each summer in New Jersey but only one in New England. Yet the late hatchings I observed at Barnstable, Mass., on July 19, 1957, suggest a second brood.

Young: My data from Barnstable, Mass., indicate an incubation period of 11 days. A iiest under observation completed its set of four eggs on July 9, 1957. On July 22 the nest contained young birds 3 days old (as estimated by Woolfenden’s observations and measurements) which probably hatched July 19. The female alone does the incubating (A. H. Norton, 1897; G. E. Woolfenden, 1956). Woolfenden says: “The first indication of hatching is a crack in the side of the egg along the line of greatest circumference. The crack is extended along this line by egg tooth, and then contraction of muscles of the neck by the embryo separates the shell into two pieces. Extension of the legs frees the bird from the shell. * * * ‘When free from the shell, the young birds rest on their tarsi, abdomen and forehead; their down dries in a few minutes, and their skin becomes noticeably darker.” He further notes that by the second day the feather papillae showed through the skin, but the feathers remained sheathed until the seventh day. The eyes began to open on the third day. Gaping began on the day of hatching and continued to the eighth or ninth day; cowering appeared on the seventh. The last egg tooth was shed on the sixth day. The average weight of five nestlings, 1.7 grams at hatching, doubled at 2 (lays, tripled at 3 days, and reached 14.2 grams on the 10th day when most left the nest. The young were fed in the nest by the female alone, and for about 20 days after leaving the nest.

William Brewster’s (MS.) observations at Revere, Mass., also showed the young to be fully feathered and ready to leave the nest in 10 days. lie watched these young being fed about once each minute. The adult “uttered the cfip Cfip note almost incessantly on its way to the nest but never while leaving it. On the outward trips it usually carded an excrement sac of the young in its bill, dropping it 50 yards or so from the nest. On t.he inward trips it brought a little lump of food the character of which we could not ascertain. * * * ~~ alighted directly at the nest and flew directly from it.” He noted that the interior of the mouths of the young was “yellow as gold.” However, nestlings I have seen have had pinkish mouth linings with a yellow rim around the bill. Young have been reported well feathered and nearly ready to fly as early as June 19 in Massachusetts, and by July 10 I have found the marshes full of newly fledged young, though some broods do not even hatch until much later than this.

Plumages: The adult plumage was succinctly described by F. M. Chapman (1896 ed.): “General color of the upper parts a brownish olive-green; crown olive-brown, with a blue-gray line through its center; gray ear coverts, inclosed by ochraceous-buff lines, one of which passes over the eye and one down the side of the throat; feathers of the back margined with grayish and sometimes whitish; bend of the wing yellow; tail-feathers narrow and sharply pointed, the outer feathers much the shortest; breast and sides washed with huffy, paler in summer, and di.stinctly streaked with black; middle of the throat and belly white or whitish.”

The sexes are similar in plumage but E. H. Forbush (1929) says that the female is the smaller. This was confirmed by G. E. Woolfenden (1956), who found the weight of 33 males to average 20.7 grams and of 14 females to average 17.8 grams. J. L. Peters (1942) mentions that there is “a more rufescent type and a less rufescent type” of plumage, although these are not actually two color phases.

Partial albino specimens have been described from Scarboro, Maine, Nantucket, Mass., and Mt. Pleasant, S.C. J. L. Peters (1942) described one partial melanistic specimen which he tentatively assigned to nelsoni; curiously enough, this bird was taken at Cape Sable, Fla., far south of the normal wintering range.

The sequence of plumages was described by J. Dwight (1900) as follows:

1. Natal down. Grayish woody brown.

2. Juvenal plumage, acquired by complete post-natal moult. Everywhere rich buff brightest on superciliary and malar stripes and on jugulum; the back broadly, the jugulum and sides narrowly streaked with clove-brown. Crown and wings nearly black, wing coverts and tertiaries broadly edged with ochraceous buff, the secondaries with russet, the primaries and their coverts with greenish tinged olive-gray, the alular with white. Tail olive brown with clove-brown shaft streaks and indistinct barring. Auriculars dusky. Bill and feet pinkish buff the former becoming dusky, the latter sepia brown with age.

3. First winter plumage acquired by partial post-juvenal moult during September and early October which involves almost the entire plumage except the primaries, their coverts and the secondaries, and apparently these also in some vigorous individuals. Unlike the previous plumage; the upper parts resembling A. maritime. Above, dull brownish olive-green, an orange tinged patch on the nape, the feathers of the back edged with pearl and cinercous gray, the crown rich sepia faintly streaked with clove-brown, an indistinct median stripe cinereous gray. The tertiaries are edged with buff, the secondaries and greater coverts with russet, the lesser coverts with olive-yellow; the edge of the wings is bright lemon-yellow. The new tail has more olive and is less barred than the old. Below, dull white, washed on the chin, across jugulum and on sides, flanks and crissum with ochraceous buff, superciliary and malar stripes deeper buff; streaked on jugulum, sides and crissum with clove-brown veiled by overlapping feather edgings. Auriculars cinereous. The buff everywhere fades rapidly and abrasion is marked bringing the throat streaking into prominence. Birds become grayer above and much whiter below by fading and by actual loss of the veiling feather tips * *

The nuptial plumage is acquired by a complete molt prior to migration in March and April each year, after which the first year birds are indistinguishable from older ones. The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in fresh plumage, although abrasion soon damages the feathers. Subsequent winter plumages acquired by complete molts prior to migration in late August and September are essentially the same as the first winter plumage, though the colors average richer.

The occurrence of two complete molts in the sharp-tailed sparrow can perhaps be correlated with the excessive and rapid abrasion of the feathers by the coarse grasses in which they live. The seaside sparrow, which has only a postnuptial molt, feeds more in the open as do the Savannah, Ipswich, grasshopper, Le Conte’s, and Henslow’s sparrows, which have a complete postnuptial and a partial prenuptial molt. Certainly the sharp-tails get mud on their plumage as I have watched them bathe from a partially submerged piece of driftwood after extracting a morsel of food from a deeper layer in the mud.

Food S. D. Judd (1901) reported that 51 stomachs of the sharptailed sparrow taken between May and October showed 81 percent animal matter and 19 percent vegetable matter. C. S. Robbins (in litt.) reported that additional birds collected in Delaware in June and September 1938 showed 100 percent animal food. Birds I collected in June and July in Massachusetts varied between 80 percent and 90 percent animal material. My studies of the contents of 250 stomachs representing all five subspecies supplied by the Fish and Wildlife Service further confirm this preponderance of animal food, greater than for any other sparrow, during the warmer months. Proportionately more vegetable matter is taken in the winter. The animal matter has been further broken down to Hymenoptera, 3 percent; Coleoptera, mostly weevils, 6 percent; Orthoptera, 7 percent; Lepidoptera, 14 percent; Hemiptera, especially leaf-hoppers, 12 percent; Diptera, 5 percent; miscellaneous insects, 8 percent; amphipods. (sandfleas), Arachnida, and small snails, 26 percent. There is no record of its taking small crabs as does the seaside sparrow. Birds I have watched in late June and early July in Barnstable, Mass,, were feeding extensively on a small whitish moth. Salt marsh birds are reported to take grasses and wild rice as vegetable matter, but fresh water birds take a large variety of weed seeds.

The only agricultural crop with which these birds are in contact is “salt hay” and their effect is primarily beneficial. Sage, Bishop, and Bliss (1913) described the food, both animal and vegetable, as 2 percent of beneficial forms, 30 percent harmful, and 68 percent neutral.

Behavior: Sharp-tailed sparrows are retiring and secretive, but not overly shy. C. W. Townsend (1905) says:

Sharp-tailed Sparrows are rather difficult birds to observe, especially if they are vigorously followed, as they then lie close, and when flushed, soon drop into the grass and instantly conceal themselves. If, however, the observer keeps still the birds often become quite tame and display their interesting habits. They run through the grass like mice, with heads low, occasionally pausing to look around, stretching up to almost double their running height. They occasionally alight in bushes or small trees, and I have seen them running about a stone-wall near the marsh like mice.

A. Sprunt and E. B. Chamberlain (1949) write of them on the wintering grounds: “The Sharp-tail responds well to the ‘squeak.’ One may stop in a patch of marsh which is apparently birdless, make the squeak noise, and suddenly up will pop these inquisitive little birds, peering here and there and balancing and swaying on the marsh grass stems.~~ In 1890, William Brewster studied several colonies of these birds on the Massachusetts coast, notably one at Revere. He reports (MS.): “They were along ditches (not tide creeks) and the edges of salt ponds bordered by dense, matted, fine and short grass (not coarse sedge such as occurs on the tide creeks).

“When flushed they would fly only a few rods and then drop into a ditch where they would run very swiftly and much like mice as they often took advantage of a shelving piece of bank by skulking well out of sight beneath it.

“Two * * * were sitting. When flushed for the first time they started about six or eight feet ahead of us rising in the usual manner without any preliminary running or tumbling about on the ground. * * * Neither bird chirped or came back about us but both, after flying thirty yards or so, alighted, one in a ditch, the other on a bare mud flat and began running and dodging among the mud lumps and grass in the usual characteristic way.

“These breeding Sharp-tails show themselves on the wing much more freely than do autumn birds. * * * The characteristic flight was short and hovering the bird rising to a height of six or eight feet and often fluttering along for a few yards dropping again into the grass. Sometimes one would go 100 to 200 yards, however, in which case it generally moved swiftly in long, gentle sweeps or undulations resembling closely those of an English Sparrow. * * * We several times saw a bird rise to a height of 15 or 20 feet and fly 100 yards or more in a perfectly straight, level course, moving as slowly and feebly as a Rail and sometimes dropping its feet and legs in a similar manner. A bird feeding young in the nest always flew in this way both going and returning.”

F. H. Allen (im litt.) writes me: “The bird in flight presents a strange appearance, as if the head end and tail end were about equal m length. The flight is direct and steady, very different from that of the Savannah Sparrow.” Thomas Nuttall (1903 ed.) commented on these birds walking on floating weeds as successfully as on land. G. E. Woolfenden (1956) said: “When searching for food, Sharp.. tailed Sparrows walk through the dense black grass, deftly brushing stems aside with their bill as they go. Open areas are generally traversed by rapid running. * * * They stop to investigate openings in the matted understory of grass, often sticking their head into the holes.”

My own observations have been made mostly in Massachusetts. These birds are easily watched, almost tame if not pursued, and soon forget the presence of a silent observer. They readily show themselves along ditches and on the mud banks where they search for food. The habit of stretching the head and neck upward to survey the neighborhood, described above by Townsend, is their most characteristic gesture. When hunting food, they walk and run, rather than hop, in a zig-zag course in the grass or across the mud, picking up particles of food as they go along. They drink the water in the ditches, usually rather brackish. I have seen them fly to a partially submerged piece of driftwood, scoop up water in the mandible and tip the head backward to swallow it. On one occasion in early June in Dartmouth, Mass., a very high tide had forced the birds into the Iva bushes where they were surprisingly clumsy in alighting and in maintaining their balance. Sharp-tails are most active early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but they do not retire completely during the middle of the day. On several occasions, I have found them active through the dusk until it became too dark to see.

F. V. ilebard (in litt.) recorded “feigning” in this species observed Aug. 1, 1953, in New Jersey: “~’Iost of the young were out of the nest, but one pair of adults first scurried through the grass like niice and then flew from one bush to another as if injured.” He defined “feigning” broadly as any “form of behavior such as rodent-running or impeded flight which tends to divert a predator from eggs or young.” I have several times been led away from a presumed nesting site by a bird making short flights with much calling and, after going about a hundred yards, circling back to the starting point.

Little is known of the life span of the sharp-tailed sparrow. G. E. Woolfenden (in litt.) has reported a female banded at Lavallette, N.J., July 3, 1955, and recovered in the same place on the same island Aug. 27, 1957. This bird, originally netted and banded at her nest, was therefore at least 3 years old when retaken, and feathers reappearing on her incubation patch indicated that she had bred in 1957 also.

Voice: The song of the sharp-tailed sparrow is not impressive. William Brewster (MS.) writes: “These sparrows are far from persistent singers. At times fully 15 minutes would pass without a sound. * * * When one began, however, he would usually start others, and for a few minutes there would be general singing all over the marsh. The song is the faintest and carries the poorest of any bird song that I have ever heard. * * * Nonetheless, it is varied and at times decidedly musical and pleasing.” It has been described as the plunging of a hot iron in water, which may or may not be preceded or followed by one or more sharp ties. Brewster (MS.) adds that “it would not be wide of the mark to say that the Sharptail’s song seems to combine a part or all of the songs of the ilenslow’s, and Yellow-winged or Savannah Sparrow’s and the Long-billed Marsh Wren’s.” To this list I would add the seaside sparrow, though the sharp-tail’s song is thinner, less liquid in quality, and carries less well.

A. A. Saunders (in litt.) has contributed the following description: “The song of the Sharp-tailed Sparrow is mainly a short fricative buzz, occasionally with a few introductory notes before it. The buzz fades away in intensity, starting comparatively loudly and growing softer till it can barely be beard, and one is not quite sure just when it actually ends. The buzz is fricative, rather than sibilant, that is, it sounds like a series of is or ths rather than s or r. Songs vary from 1.4 to 2.5 seconds, averaging about 1.7 seconds. The pitch varies from F”‘ to C””, and the pitch interval from 1 to 2′ 2 tones.”

In my own notes, I have recorded several song patterns which may be phoneticized as ts-ts-.sssssss-tsik, ts-ts-ts-ts-ts-tsi-lik’, and tsi-liIe tssss-s-s-s: s: -s. I have heard songs lasting up to 5 or 6 seconds. Woolfenden (1956) recorded them to 20 seconds.

The song is given in two manners, from a perch and in flight.. William Brewster (MS.) says: “The Sharp-tail usually sings from the top of a cluster of tall grass but sometimes perches on a stake. It sits as erect as a Hawk and quite as motionless. I could not detect any quivering of the wings or tail and was not even sure that the throat swelled pc;ceptively. * * * The bird has one peculiar habit in connection with its singing, viz, it rarely sings more than twice consecutively and often only once from the same perch, taking numerous short flights from place to place.” I have often observed the flight song at Barnstable, Mass., and Tiverton, R.I. The bird springs up from the grass, rises about 20 feet, then flutters in a semicircle with quivering wings and drooping head and tail while singing three or four times, and finally drops straight downward rapidly and silently. Sometimes the bird makes this flight without uttering a sound. I have not heard singing earlier than May 23, and the latest recorded date is August 9 (A. A. Saunders, 1948). Walter Faxon reported to William Brewster their singing in the Neponset Marshes in Massachusetts on July 8, 1890, when the temperature stood at 920.

The call note is a soft scolding and chirping, uttered relatively infrequently. It is variously described as tic, cup, chuck, tchcp, tsip chut, etc.

Field marks: The sharp-tailed sparrow is a handsome and wellmarked bird, always identifiable if sufficient care is taken to study it adequately. The ochre-buff facial marking surrounding the gray cheek patch is the essential mark. The crown and nape appear grayish, the breast st.reakings are variable, and the back brown sometimes with considerable grayish. The sharply pointed tail feathers are sometimes a useful mark as the bird flies away. It can be confused only with the seaside sparrow, which appears appreciably larger, darker, and grayer.

My comments on subspecific identification are based on both field experience and a study of many museum specimens. A. c. caudacuta seems to be the “mean of the species,” the facial markings being well defined, the breast streaking sharp, and the back brown with contrasting pale edgings to the scapulars. A. c. diversa has a darker back with less pale edging on the scapulars, and stronger breast streaking with some huffy wash. A. c. subvirgata is the palest and grayest race, the yellow of the face and the gray of the cheek being quite light and the back quite gray; the breast streaking is present but blurred. A. c. altera has richer orange and gray facial markings than subvirgata. but a grayer back than nelsoni. A. c. nelsoni is slightly smaller and has a strong huffy wash across the breast which is practically devoid of streaking, the facial markings being very rich ochre.

In summary, without the specimen in the hand and without adequate skins for comparison, it is my opinion that diversa vs. caudacuta are inseparable as are s’ithvirgata vs. altera, altera vs. nelsoni, and perhaps nelsoni vs. caudacuta. Birds from certain marshes on the Maine coast intermediate between caudacuta and subvirgata are often surprisingly like altera.

Enemies: The predation files of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report sharp-tailed sparrows present in only 3 of 617 marsh hawk stomachs, all from Fisher’s Island, N.Y., and in only 1 of 1,275 marsh hawk pellets from wintering birds in Florida. Also nelsoni was found in one of 281 short-eared owl stomachs from Illinois. In addition, it must be assumed that such ground-dwelling birds are occasionally taken by minks, foxes, rats, and snakes, although specific records are lacking.

H. S. Peters (1937) listed only one external parasite, a louse, Phiopterus subftavescens, on this bird. I examined 12 specimens, collected at Barnstable, Mass., for parasites: 8 were completely free; 4 showed from 1 to 10 individuals of the above louse, and 1 had a tick, not yet identified. No Mallophaga, hippoboscids, or endoparasites were found. Examination of blood smears proved negative.

Eastern equine encephalitis virus has not yet been reported from this species.

Friedmann (1963) reports no instance of parasitism by the cowbird on this race of the sharp-tailed sparrow. Indeed, he (1929) specifically excludes it because it is “ecologically distinct in lits] breeding grounds from the Cowbird.” This distinction apparently applies to all races except nelsoni (see under that subspecies).

Unusual storm tides take a toll of sharp-tail nests, built as they are just at the upper limit of normal high tides. 0. 5. Pettingill (1936) described such destruction in June 1935 on Grand Manan Island, referable of course to subinrgater. H. F. Lewis (1920), also referring to sidwirgata in Nova Scotia, noted an apparent correlation between the height of spring tides and the time of nesting, and he questioned whether the bird may take the expected height of. the tide into account in building its nest.

More important are the changes in the habitat produced by man. William Brewster (1906) said of these birds in Cambridge, Mass., “Formerly a common summer resident of one locality which has long since been totally abandoned.” At that time, this was a tidal marsh; at present, no vestige remains, the marsh having been filled and densely built up with industry. Witmer Stone (1937) noted a restriction in range in New Jersey caused by drainage. My records show that the marshes of Scusset Creek at Sagamore, Mass., were once satisfactory for sharp-tails and supported a number of pairs, but widening and deepening the Cape Cod Canal partially filled these marshes in and changed the drainage pattern so that they were no longer subject to periodic salt water flooding. As the salt leached out of the soil after four or five years, the Spartina disappeared and with it the sharp-tailed sparrows. Now these former marshes are mostly brush-covered and in places growing up to pitch pine and scrub oak.

Fall: Fall migration begins in mid-September and consists of a general withdrawal southward. The largest concentrations of the year arc usually seen at this time. Early fall arrivals have been collected in South Carolina and coastal Alabama on September 21, but some birds are seen regularly in Massachusetts and New York, excluding wintering stragglers, to late November. Most observers agree that the sharp-tails are less shy on migration than when nesting, and show themselves more readily, often clinging to tall reeds rather than flying away. In my experience this trait is more marked in the fall than in spring, and probably results from the larger number of individuals present and to the high proportion of inexperienced immature birds.

Winter: The principal wintering grounds of the entire species are along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama. They arc grc~rar1ous in winter and Audubon (1841) said of them in South Carolina: “I have observed thousands * * * in late December, and so numerous are they, that I have seen more than 40 * * * killed with one shot.” A. T. Wayne (1910) considered this race the most abundant around Charleston, S.C. Sprunt and Chamberlain (1949) wrote: “They are tidal to the extent that they live in the marsh until forced out by the rising tides; then they congregate along the shoreline, on the back beaches of the islands, on the spoil banks of the Inland Waterway or along the edges of the mainland. An observer walking along the rim of such places at high water will flush them by the score.”

A. II. Howell (1932) considered them common in northern Florida south to Mosquito Inlet on the east coast and to Tampa Bay on the west, and commented that they are practically silent in winter. The appearance of this race on the west coast of Florida, substantiated by many specimens I have examined, is the only evidence that it ever makes a regular overland flight. The scarcity of records from southern Florida suggests these individuals cross over 100 or more miles of land to reach the Gulf Coast.

A few straggling individuals attempt to winter in favorable marshes north to Massachusetts and have been recorded regularly in recent years on Christmas counts from Cape Cod southward. It is to be doubted, however, that many of these birds survive until spring, at least in New England, as February and March records are few and far between. I have personally found sharp-tails on Cape Cod in January and then failed in mid-March to locate them in an intensive search of the same marshes.

Range: Coastal marshes from southern Maine to southern and western Florida.

Breeding Range: The eastern sharp-tailed sparrow breeds locally in salt marshes of the Atlantic coast from southern Maine (Scarborough) south to coastal New Jersey (south to near Tuekerton); extends to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantueket County off the coast of Massachusetts.

Winter Range: Winters in coastal marshes from southern New Jersey (Cape I\{ay) south to northern and western Florida (Mosquito Inlet, St. Vincent Island, Tampa Bay region) and southern Alabama; casually to Massachusetts (Barnstable) and southern Florida (Cape Sable).

Migration: The data apply to the species as a whole. Early dates of spring arrival are: Pennsylvania: State College, May 6. New Jersey: Cape May, March 31. New York: New York City area, May 26. Connecticut: New Haven, April 30. Rhode Island: Point Judith, April 27. Massachusetts: Revere, May 19; Essex County, May 23. New Hampshire: New Hampton, May 22. Maine: South Harpswell, April 5. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, April 6 and April 22. Nova Scotia: Wolf yule, June 3. Arkansas: Stuttgart, May 14. Missouri: St. Louis, April 18. Illinois: Quincy, April 5; Chicago, May 12. Ohio: Buckeye Lake, April 18. Michigan: Grand Rapids, April 11. Iowa: Mason City, April 20. Wisconsin: Milwaukee, May 3. Minnesota: Isanti County, April 8 (average of 5 years for southern Minnesota, May 22). Kansas: Elmdale, April 4. South Dakota: Vermilion, April 29. North Dakota: Ward County, May 21; Jamestown, May 24.

Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: -Tallahassee, May 18; Amelia Island, May 11. Alabama: Bayou La Batre, May 16. Georgia: Chatham County, May 2. Virginia: Blacksburg, May 23. Maryland: Baltimore County, June 3. New York: New York City area, June 8. Connecticut: North Madison, June 9. Massachusetts: Essex County, June 11. Arkansas: Mena, May 24. Missouri: St. Louis, May 15. Illinois: Chicago, May 23; Rantoul, May 16. Ohio: central Ohio, May 27. Wisconsin: Milwaukee, May 21. Minnesota: Duluth, May 15. Texas: Cove, May 20. North Dakota: Jamestown, June 10.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Kansas: Topeka, October 6. Oklahoma: Tulsa, October 17. Texas: High Island, October 31. Minnesota: Minneapolis, September 21. Wisconsin: Milwaukee, September 20. Ontario: Toronto, September 23. Michigan-southeastern Michigan, September 27. Ohio: central Ohio, September 19. Illinois: Addison, August 31; Chicago, September 12 (average of 6 years, September 20). Missouri: St. Louis, September 6. Tennessee: Smyrna, September 24. Mississippi: Gulfport, September 26. New Hampshire: New Hampton, October 8. Massachusetts-Essex County, September 3 (median of 5 years, September 13). Connecticut: New Haven, September 14; Portland, September 21. New York: Syracuse, August 29 (average of 6 years for upstate New York, October 3). Pennsylvania: State College, September 20. Virginia: Cape Henry, August 20. North Carolina: Greensboro, September 29. Georgia: Tybee Island, September 29. Alabama-Orange Beach, September 21. Florida: Amelia Island, October 17; Seven Oaks, October 20.

Late dates of fall departure are: North Dakota: Jamestown, September 14. South Dakota: Sioux Falls, October 20. Minnesota: Minneapolis, October 11 (average of 3 years for southern Minnesota, September 24). Wisconsin: Iowa County, October 8. Iowa: Iowa City, October 12. Ontario: Ottawa, October 16. Michigan: Grand Rapids, November 21. Ohio: Central Ohio, October 8. Illinois: Chicago, October 21 (average of 6 years, October 3). Mis-. souri: St. Louis, October 23. Tennessee: Memphis, October 25. Louisiana: Shreveport, October 19. Prince Edward Island: Gladstone, September 21. New Brunswick: Grand Manan, October 6. Maine: Scarboro Marsh, November 15. New Hampshire: New Hampton, October 22. Massachusetts: Swampscott, November 9. Connecticut: New Haven, November 12. New York: Moriches Inlet, November 24; Cayuga basin, October 29. New Jersey-Elizabeth, October 28; Cape May, October 25. Pennsylvania-State College, November 2. Virginia: Lexington, October 17.

Egg dates: Connecticut: 60 records, May24 to July 14; 34 records, June 8 to June 13.

Maryland: 7 records, May 14 to August 21; 5 records, May 25 to June 27.

Massachusetts: 12 records, June 9 to July 2.

New York: May 9 to August 4 (number of records not stated).

Rhode Island: 10 records, June 11 to July 6.


Contributed by NORMAN P. HILL

The southern sharp-tailed sparrow was described by Louis B. Bishop in 1901, the type locality being Wanchese, Roanoke Island, N.C. Its breeding range as now defined extends from Tuckerton, N.J., south to Chincoteague Island, Va., and includes suitable marshes within the estuary of Chesapeake Bay north to Anne Arundel County on the west shore of Maryland and to Queen Anne County on the east. Though the 1957 A.O.U. Check-List extends the breeding range south to Pea Island, N.C., the marshes south of Chincoteague Island, Va., and those in North Carolina have been vainly searched for breeding colonies of this species by Montagna (1942a,b) and, independently, by me. The specimen reported as this species taken as a nestling at Pea Island, N.C., on which the Check-List range is apparently based, proves actually to be a juvenile seaside sparrow (Wetmore, 1944).

The range of the southern sharp-tailed sparrow lies entirely to the south of the area of Pleistocene glaciation. The marshes occupied by this race are similar to those of the eastern sharp-tail. They are salt or brackish, well-drained, and green with soft thick grass usually less than a foot tall. Again Spartina patins is the dominant plant, but also associated are Spartina glabra, Distiddis spicata, Juncus gerardi, and several species of Scirpus. The marshes themselves vary in size from the extensive ones around Chincoteague, Va., to rather narrow strips flanking estuaries in Maryland, where the sharp-tails may be found breeding within a few yards of grasshopper and Henslow’s sparrows. South of the breeding range of A. e. diversa the coastal marshes are no longer green and meadowlike, but become coarse, sparse, tall, and brown, with Juncus roemerianus, Salicornia europea, and Eliocharis sp. the predominant plant growth. While the sharp-tails occupy this plant association commonly in winter, they have never been known to nest in it.

Like the more northern representatives of A. c. caudacuta, this subspecies is distinctly colonial, and chooses one section of marsh over another without apparent reason. A census of a colony in Somerset County, Md., showed a density of 17 pairs in 17 acres (P. F. Springer and R. E. Stewart, 1948). Its habits and behavior are not significantly different from those of A. c. caudacuta. Nests and eggs described by H. H. Bailey (1913) are similar in location and appearance to those of the nominate race. Nests with full sets of eggs have been found May 22 to August 21.

Montagna (1942a) writes that “The race diversa chirps more frequently than subvirgata and caudacuta. * * * Also the occasional flight songs of diversa which I witnessed did not seem as spectacular as those of the other races to the north. The males rose only twenty feet or so in the air, uttering the song repeatedly, in the ascent as well as the descent. The song, too, seemed to be harsher and more varied than that of caudacuta and subvirgata.”

For comments on identification, see the appropriate section under A. c. caudacuta. As far as is known, the plumage sequence and molts are identical with those of that subspecies.

Montagna (1942a) mentions that the diet of this race when he studied them during June and July was almost exclusively small blackish spiders, which they were also feeding to their young.

Migration consists chiefly of withdrawal down the coast to the main wintering grounds along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts. Like A. c. caudacuta, a few birds cross Florida to the Gulf coast and have been collected as far west as Louisiana (H. C. Oberholser, 1938). DIsmIBu¶rIoN

Range: Tidal marshes from Chesapeake Bay and southern New Jersey to northern Florida.

Breeding Range: The southern sharp-tailed sparrow breeds locally in salt and brackish marshes from upper Chesapeake Bay (Sandy Point, Kent Narrows) and southern New Jersey (Tuckerton, intergrading with A. c. caudacuta) south to Virginia (Wallop’s Island).

Winter Range: Winters from South Carolina (Charleston County) south to east central Florida (Titusville) and along the Gulf coast of northern Florida (Wakulla County, Tarpon Springs); casually north to Virginia (Smith’s Island), west to Louisiana (Buras), and south to southern Florida (Cape Sable).

Egg dates: New Jersey: 24 records, May 22 to August 21; 12 records, May 30 to June 22.


Contributed by NORMAN P. HILL

The James Bay race of the sharp-tailed sparrow was described as Arnmo8pira caudacuta altera by W. E. C. Todd in 1938, the type locality being East Main, James Bay, Ontario, Canada. The breeding range is restricted to the marshes at the southern end of James Bay. It is separated by 600 miles from the nearest nelsoni to the west and by 475 miles from the nearest subeirgata to the southeast.

H. F. Lewis (1939) thus describes the marshes this race inhabits:

James Bay, which is about 230 miles long and 140 miles wide, occupies the lowest part of a shallow depression with sides that are very flat and slope very gently. * * * Mt.hough the tide rises and falls vertically o:ily 5 to 7 feet, the southern and western shores ara so nearly horizontal that in the course of this rise and fall the waters of the bay advance and recede over flats of fairly firm material that are often from two to four miles in width. * * * Above normal high-tide mark, * * * is a border of sedge-grown marsh, usually about a mile wide, with fresh to brackish water. In exceptionally high tides, the bay overflows this marsh for short periods. Back of the marsh are woods, first a profusion of willows, then white spruce and poplar, often 75 or more feet high, then black spruce and tamarack.

The James Bay area has been heavily glaciated and relatively more recently than farther south, so the soil is glacial debris of gravel, boulders, sand, and clay in the process of rearrangement by water activity.

As would be expected, the sharp-tails are found in sedge and grass areas. Juncus gerardi, Oarex maritima, Scirpus rufu.s, and Triglocitin sp. are reported in these marshes. The plants are more separate and upright, so the vegetation gets less matted than in Spartina patens areas, and the marshes have a more varied appearance than those farther south.

There are no published data on habits, nest, young, molts, song, food, and so forth, of this race. I see no reason to believe they differ from any of the others. In the field, altera cannot be separated from subvirgata on one hand or from netsoni on the other; even with the specimen in the hand, the diagnosis is difficult and sometimes impossible. J. A. Hagar was impressed by the extreme buffy color of the young in juvenal plumage.

In migration, this bird moves more or less directly north and south. There are numerous records around Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and in the Finger Lakes region of New York (see A. c. eubeirgata). From here the birds apparently move toward the Atlantic coast rather than down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, though specimens from the interior should be reexamined. They have been collected on the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts south to their wintering grounds in South Carolina, Georgia, northern Florida, and Alabama. This race has also been collected once in Louisiana (H. C. Oberholser, 1938). There are many more fall than spring records along the northern part of the Atlantic coast.

Range: James Bay to coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

Breeding Range: The James Bay sharp-tailed sparrow breeds in marshes bordering James Bay in northern Ontario (Cape Henrietta Maria) and northern Quebec (Eastmain).

Winter Range: Winters in coastal marshes from South Carolina (Charleston County) south to eastern Florida (Ft. Pierce); casually west to Louisiana (Buras); recorded in migration west to Michigan (Livingston County) and Ohio (Richmond County) and east to Vermont (Clarendon), Massachusetts (Swampscott, Revere, Scituate), New York (Highland Falls, mouth of Croton River, Westchester County) and Chesapeake Bay, Md. (Cornfield Harbor).

Egg dates: Ontario: 2 records, June 25 and July 12.

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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