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Seaside Sparrow

As the name hints, these sparrows tend to live near shorelines.

Living up to its name, the Seaside Sparrow occurs in a narrow strip along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. During the breeding season, male Seaside Sparrows spend between fifty and seventy-five percent of their time foraging. They often forage some distance away from the breeding territory that they defend.

Because the coastal marshes used for nesting are vulnerable to storm surge flooding, Seaside Sparrow nests may be lost, but second and even third nesting attempts are common after nest failures. Male Seaside Sparrows usually return to the same nesting territory each year, and some sparrows have been known to live for eight or nine years.

Length: 6 inches
Wing span: 7 inches


Description of the Seaside Sparrow


The Seaside Sparrow has a dark back with pale streaks, a mostly gray head with yellow lores and a long bill, a distinct white throat, and either pale underparts with dark streaks, or gray underparts with buffy streaks, depending on race.  Like all Ammodramus sparrows, its short tail is evident in flight.

Seaside Sparrow


Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles have more orange on the underparts.


Seaside Sparrows inhabit coastal salt marshes.


Seaside Sparrows eat insects and some seeds.

Seaside Sparrow


Seaside Sparrows forage on the ground or within marsh plants.


Seaside Sparrows are resident along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts of the U.S. The population may be stable except in New England and Florida, where it is threatened.

Fun Facts

Because Seaside Sparrows are strictly tied to salt marsh habitat, which is patchy in distribution, populations in different areas have developed differing plumages. The “Dusky” Seaside Sparrow subspecies became extinct in 1987.

Seaside Sparrows respond well to pishing.


The song consists of a wheezy sequence reminiscent of the song of the Red-winged Blackbird. A raspy “tuk” call is given as well.


Similar Species


The Seaside Sparrow’s nest is a cup of grasses and is lined with finer materials. It is placed in marsh vegetation.

Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Whitish or bluish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-13 days, and fledge at about 9-11 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.


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



This dark-colored little salt marsh dweller was discovered by Alexander Wilson, who collected the first known specimens in 1810 along the New Jersey shore probably near where Ocean City now stands. He called it the “sea-side finch” and in his description (1811) of it writes:

Of this bird I can find no description. It inhabits the low rush-covered sea islands along our Atlantic coast, where I first found it; keeping almost continually within the boundaries of tidewater, except when long and violent east or northeasterly storms, with high tides, compel it to seek the shore. On these occasions it courses along the margin, and among the holes and interstices of the weeds and sea-wrack, with a rapidity equaled only by the nimblest of our sandpipers, and very much in their manner. At these times also it roosts on the ground, and runs about after dusk.

Amidst the recesses of these wet sea marshes, it seeks the rankest growth of grass and sea weed, and climbs along the stalks of the rushes with as much dexterity as it runs along the ground, which is rather a singular circumstance, most of our climbers being rather awkward at running.

Confined as it is to the salt marshes of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America, the seaside sparrow is by far the most maritime in distribution of all our land birds. So rigidly is the species restricted to its marsh habitat that its presence any distance from it is essentially accidental. Practically the only times one ever sees it away from the thick shelter of Spartina, Juncus, and other salt marsh grasses is when, as Wilson noted, storm-driven tides inundate the marshes and force it to take temporary refuge on adjoining higher land.

The 1957 A.O.U. Check-List recognizes nine distinct forms of the seaside sparrow, which W. J. Beecher (1955) has postulated were probably encouraged to develop by harriers in the form of drowned rivers created by fluctuations in sea level during late Pleistocene time. The nominate subspecies, breeding from Massachusetts southward to Virginia, is the northernmost race of this interesting complex. In the spring and summer of 1955 I was able to study its nesting habits in Ocean County, N.J., only a few miles north of where Wilson first found it a century and a half ago, and where it breeds side by side with the congeneric sharp-tailed sparrow. Unless otherwise noted, the ensuing data are taken from my published report (1956) of those studies.

Spring: Though a few individuals winter fairly regularly throughout its breeding range, the northern seaside sparrow population is essentially migratory, and most individuals winter to the southward. Nothing is known of their departure from the wintering grounds in spring, hut Allan Cruickshank (1942) reports that in the New York City region “while there is sometimes a light flight in mid-April, the first widespread movement seldom comes before the initial week of May. A spring peak is reached during the third week of this month.”

At Chadwick, Ocean County, N.J.. I saw the first seasides on May 5, 1955, when several appeared on the territories where they eventually nested. As these birds were not in evidence the previous day, they had apparently arrived during the night. During the next two weeks the species was most abundant, as birds continued to arrive and to pass by the territories being defended by the resident males.

Territory: Unlike the closely allied sharp-tailed sparrow, the male seaside sparrow establishes a nesting territory which he advertises and defends against encroachment by other males. This he accomplishes mainly by singing, also by chasing when necessary. The song, given from an exposed perch such as a cattail (Typha) stalk or marshelder (Ira Jutescems) bush within the territory, advertises its occupancy and warns that other seaside sparrows will not be tolerated. When the warning is disregarded, the male flies directly toward the intruder, close to the ground and often uttering rapid chipping notes.

The chase is not vigorous, and fighting is minimal, for occupancy is widely respected and almost invariably the intruder flees.

My study area in New Jersey, a marsh islet approximately 1,400 feet long and 600 feet wide, supported eight pairs of seaside sparrows in 1955. The territory of each pair consisted of a nesting area in the thicker sedges or bushy growth within the marsh, and a feeding area in the more scattered cord-grass (Spartina) and open mud at the marsh edge. The two were contiguous in some cases; in others they were separated by several hundred feet of marsh that the birds flew across and seldom alighted in. I never saw the species forage in the interior of the marsh, but each pair fed within a particular segment of shoreline usually not more than 200 feet in length and scarcely 20 feet wide. All parts of the territories of the different pairs were mutually exclusive, and in 6 weeks of close observation of marked birds (June 15 to August 1), I saw no resident seaside sparrow outside its defended area, which in no case extended more than 400 feet in any one direction.

No population density studies of the seaside sparrow have been conducted in large tracts of optimum habitat. In Maryland, Springer and Stewart (1948) found two territorial males in 19.5 acres of a salt marsh bulrush (Scirpus robustus): saltgrass (Distichlis spicata) marsh and two territorial males in 22.25 acres of needlerush (Juncus roemerianus) marsh. The ditched islet I studied in New Jersey had 8.25 acres of marsh (the remainder was sand fill) dominated by smooth cord-grass (Spartina alt erniflora) , black grass (Juncus gerardi), and rows of marsh-elder (Iva Jrutescens). Each of the eight occupied territories here contained portions of the open mud shoreline where the birds fed. A larger tract of similar habitat would not have so dense a population (97p/lOO) because it would possess relatively less open shoreline.

Nothing is known of courtship and pair formation in this species. When I began intensive observations on June 15, all nests already contained eggs. In late June an influx of unbanded birds occurred, apparently individuals that had not yet nested or had perhaps nested unsuccessfully elsewhere. A few of these established territories in marsh unoccupied by the remaining original residents. On July 7 I watched one of these females as she seemed to be searching for a nest site. She crawled about in a marsh-elder bush, apparently testing the various forks in the branches for size. The male followed, remaining a few inches above and behind her. Several times the two birds disappeared in the lower branches where they were hidden by the surrounding black grass. Finally while the female squatted on a branch the male fluttered his wings, mounted on her back, and continued fluttering his wings during the few seconds of supposed copulation.

Nesting: In contrast to the sharp-tailed sparrow which prefers the higher and drier parts of the marsh, the seaside sparrow almost always nests in the wetter portions (Stone, 1937; Forbush and May, 1939; Cruickshank, 1942). It usually builds just above the normal summer high tide mark where black grass (Juncus gerardi) and smooth cord grass (Spartir&a alterniftora) are the dominant plant growth. Most of the salt marshes in New Jersey have been ditched for mosquito control. On the mounds of excavated muck along these narrow ditches grow rows of marsh-elders (Iva Jrutescens) which provide suitable, often preferred nesting sites for the seasides.

Of the eight nests I found in 1955, four were supported by marshelders (three of them dead), three were built in black grass tussocks, and the eighth was supported mainly by cord grass stems. All eight nests were simple open cups built entirely of black grass stems and well concealed in the black grass, which grew so thickly around them they could be entered from only one direction. The prevailing southwest winds of spring and summer lean the marsh grass to the northeast, and six of the nests were approached from the easterly quadrant. Two nests, built in marsh-elders that held the surrounding grass stems upright, were entered from the northwest. One nest, built in a small dead marsh-elder, was soon tilted by the growth of the black grass supporting one side. Though this did not spill the contents, the adults shortly deserted the nest.

From the ground to the upper rim the eight nests varied from 9 to 11 (average 9.6) inches. Their outside diameters ranged from 3 to 4.5 (average 3.9) inches, and outside depths from 2 to 3.5 (average 2.7) inches. Inside diameters varied between 2 and 2.5 inches; seven nests had an inside depth of 1.5 inches, the other only 1 inch.

Eggs: Tbe seaside sparrow lays three to six eggs, with four or five comprising the usual set. They are ovate and have only a slight gloss. The ground is white or pale greenish-white, profusely speckled, spotted, and blotched with dark reddish browns such as “Hay’s brown,” “burnt umber,” “Mars brown,” “Prout’s brown,” or “auburn,” and with underlying spots of “light purplish gray.” The markings are usually well defined and tend to be concentrated toward the large end. On some the undermarkings ere quite prominent, on others entirely lacking. In series the eggs are noticeably larger than those of the sharp-tailed sparrow, and their markings are generally larger and bolder. The measurements of 50 eggs of the nominate race average 20.9 by 15.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 8.~.9 by 15.8, 20.3 by 16.5, 18.3 by 15.2, and 22.1 by 14.5 millimeters.

Incubation: The birds I studied in 1955 raised only one brood that summer, and the egg dates suggest that the northern seaside sparrow is normally single-brooded. The literature contains no information on the duration of incubation, which I also was unable to ascertain because I found no nest before it contained its full complement of eggs.

The female seaside sparrow does all the incubating. While she is on the nest the male usually remains a short distance away and sings frequently from some favorite perch. When disturbed be gives alarm notes that bring the female off the nest and both chip at the intruder. When the female leaves for the feeding grounds before the eggs hatch, the male accompanies her, and normally they return together.

Young: At hatching a crack develops around the widest part of the egg where it has been etched on the inside by the egg tooth. Contraction of the chick’s neck muscles separates the shell into two pieces, and extending the legs frees the bird from the shell. Each of two young I held in my hand during this process defecated in the shell while freeing itself. When free of the shell the nestling rests on its tarsi, abdomen, and forehead. The down dries in a few minutes, and the skin becomes noticeably darker.

The day they hatch the young start to gape, and as the parents feed them their abdomens distend. During the first 24 hours they frequently utter a soft “peep,” and at its end are better able to right themselves, and many feather papillae show distinctly through the skin. On the second day the young are able to move short distances by using their wings and feet. A thick ridge of tissue forms over the eyeball where the eyelids later delaminate. The call now becomes a double version of the “peep” note. When the young are 3 days old the eyelids open slightly. During the next 3 days they become better coordinated and their eyes open fully. The egg tooth is usually lost by the sixth day.

All incoming feathers remain sheathed until the seventh day, when the body feathers start to emerge from the tips of their sheaths. Up to this time disturbing the nest produced only a begging reaction. Now they show the first signs of cowering and utter a squealing distress call when handled. On the eighth day begging is less frequent, cowering is the predominant attitude, and the young try to escape when removed from the nest. The remigial sheaths now turn from dark blue to gray and begin to slough off.

The first young left the Lavallette nests, which it must be remembered were being disturbed daily by my visits, on the ninth day, and none remained in the nest beyond the tenth day. When I parted the grass over a nest on the tenth day, the four young jumped out and scattered in the grass. They were able to run well. One of them gave a chipping note similar to the adult distress call.

Both parents fed the young and maintained nest sanitation by carrying fecal sacs away in their bills. I never saw an adult swallow a fecal sac, and I found several discarded ones on the feeding grounds.

Nice’s (1943) observation that devotion of parent passerines to their young typically increases as they grow was exemplified by several incidents. A banded female who lost her mate early in incubation successfully batched her three eggs, but deserted the young on their second day. A male whose mate disappeared when their four young were 6 days old continued to care for them until they fledged. The death of one of these nestlings on the eighth day and the fouling of the nest with excreta by the ninth day suggest he had difficulties carrying on the parental duties alone.

At another nest I visited daily from the time of hatching until the young fledged, the parents never performed the distraction display until the last day. As I lifted the 9-day-old young from the nest to weigh them they gave the distress call. This brought the parents from the feeding grounds 60 yards away. They ran around on the ground within 10 feet of me uttering the t.sip notes and fluttering their wings. Several times they flew within a few feet of me buzzing their wings audibly. Although well aware of its purpose, I still found their display distracting.

The Lavallette nestlings were weighed and measured daily. During their first 7 days of nest life they increased in weight from 2.1 to 13.7 grams, or 1.6 grams per day. The remaining 3 days showed an average gain of only 1.5 grams to 15.2 grams. The rectrices and remiges began growing rapidly on the third day and averaged 4.5 and 17.5 millimeters respectively on the ninth. The tarsi, which measured 7.0 millimeters at hatching, were over 22 millimeters, or essentially adult length, when the young left the nest. As running is their only means of locomotion for several more days, it is not surprising that their tarsi mature so quickly.

Comparable weights and measurements were made on 14 adult males and 3 females taken at Chadwick between May 6 and June 27, 1955, as follows: Weight, males 24.2 grams (21.9: 27.4), females 22.3 grams (19.8: 24.4); wing (chord), males 64.2 millimeters (60: 66), females 58.3 millimeters (58: 59); tail, males 55.3 millimeters (54: 59), females 51.0 millimeters (49: 53); tarsus, males 23.0 millimeters (22: 25), females 22.2 millimeters (21: 23).

Plumages: The color of the plumages of the seaside sparrows matches their natural surroundings. The olive-gray upperparts of the adults resemble the color of the mud on which they forage. The browner streaked plumage of the juveniles, which shows a striking resemblance to that of the sharp-tailed sparrow, doubtless hides them more effectively in the dense grass where they spend most of their time.

The young undergo a complete post-juvenal molt in late August. The resulting first winter plumage is indistinguishable from that which the adults acquire by their complete postnuptial molt at about the same time (Dwight, 1900). In August a high proportion of the seaside sparrows, including adults, have stubby tail feathers. A simultaneous molt of the rectrices may be normal for the species. There is no prenuptial molt, and the spring breeding plumage is acquired entirely by feather wear.

Dwight (1900) expressed surprise that the sharp-tailed sparrow has two complete molts annually while the congeneric seaside sparrow “living in the same environment * * * and suffering equally from abrasion due to coarse marsh grasses and reeds” has but one. My observations show the two species do not occupy precisely the same habitat. The sharp-tails nest and usually forage in the densest stands of grass, while the seasides prefer to feed in more open areas where they suffer less abrasion.

Ridgway (1901) thus describes the adult plumage (sexes alike):

Above alove-grayish, tinged with olive, especially on back, where feathers are somewhat darker with light grayish edges, producing more or less distinct streaks; pileum olive laterally, grayish medially, producing three broad but very indistinct and faintly contrasted stripes; a supraloral streak of yellow, usually passing into whitish posteriorly, succeeded by a broad supra-auricular stripe of olive-grayish; a malar stripe, chine, throat, and abdomen white; submalar stripe and broad streaks on chest grayish; edge of wing yellow. * * *

Some specimens show more or less black streaking on the posterior portion of the pileum, but in the large series examined (40 adults) this is never conspicuous. Autumnal and winter specimens show more or less of a pale buff suffusion on the chest, the white malar stripe also more or less buffy.

Richard R. Graber (1955) thus describes the juvenal plumage: “Feathers above nostrils white. Forehead and crown streaked black, olive, and olive brown. Nape olive brown. Back feathers black, edged with olive brown and buff (pattern: heavy black streaks on olive brown). Rump huffy or buffy brown obscurely marked with black. Upper tail coverts olive brown streaked with black. Rectrices olive brown, black along each shaft. Remiges black, edged with drab, tertials edged with dull rusty brown and tipped with huffy white. Median and greater coverts black, edged with buff. No wing bar pattern. Lores huffy gray. Superciliary (in front of eye) huffyyellow. Postocular strip buff; feathers around eye gray or buffy gray. Auriculars gray; sub- and postoculars light buff (distinct cheek patch). Chin and throat white with dusky “mustache” marks. Upper chest, sides, and flanks buff, streaked with (lark brown or blackish (amo lint of streaking variable). Belly white, crissum buff, both unmarked. Leg feathers huffy or bully gray.”

Food: Judd (1901) determined the food of the seaside sparrow to be, like that of its congener, the sharp-tailed sparrow, more than 80 percent animal matter. Audubon (1839) noted their food “consists of marine insects, small crabs and snails, as well as the green sand beetle, portions of all of which I have found in their stomach.” His added comment “Having one day shot a number of these birds, merely for the sake of practice, I had them made into a pie, which, however, could not be eaten, on account of its fishy savour~~ is as interesting a reflection on the customs of his day as it is on the seaside sparrow’s feeding habits.

The bills of both the Ammospizas, more elongated and less conical than those of any other fringillids, are perhaps better adapted for insect eating. In winter they eat some vegetable matter, mainly seeds of marsh grasses, but this is apparently never an important part of their diet. A funnel trap baited with canary seed on the Lavallette marshes during the spring migration of 1955 caught Savannah sparrows (Passereulus sand’wicensis) in quantity, but not a single Ammospiza. The nesting seasides at Lavallette fed extensively on noctuid moths. I counted some 40 wings of these moths in the feeding territories of two pairs along a tide-deposited windrow of eel grass (Zostera marina). Often the four wings of a single moth lay as they had on the insect, whose body the sparrows had neatly snipped out. The parent birds seemed to give smaller and softer food items to their nestlings at hatching and larger things as they grew.

Behavior: To quote Audubon (1839) again: “The monotonous chirpings which one hears in almost every part of our maritime salt marshes are produced by this bird. *** The Seaside Finch may be seen at any hour ~f the day, during the months of May and June, mounted on the tops of the rankest weeds which grow by the margins of tidewater along the greater portion of our Atlantic coast., where it pours forth with much emphasis the few notes of which its song is composed. When one approaches it, it either seeks refuge amongst the grass, by descending along the stalks and blades of the weeds, or flies off to a short distance, with a continued fluttering of wings, then alights with a rapid descent, and runs off with great nimbleness.”

On the species running ability Stone (1937) remarks: “While making but little show in the air the Seaside Sparrow is very much at home on the muddy bottom of the marsh and its large feet are well adapted for running over the soft ooze while they, as well as the short tail, shape of body, and somewhat elongated bill, all recall the structure of the rails, which are co-tenants of the meadows. The Seaside Sparrow c-an run very swiftly, threading its way in and out among the coarse stalks of the Spartina grass that grows along the edges of the creeks. As it runs the legs seem rather long and the body is held well up from the ground while the tail is always pointed downward.”

Trotter (1891) expla.ined this species’ large strong feet and short, stiff pointed tail as adaptations for clinging to tall reeds being swayed about by the wind. Stone’s suggestion that the feet are enlarged for running over the soft mud seems more plausible. Short tails are a characteristic of a number of species that dwell in dense grassy habitats, those that do not cling to reeds such as the rails and meadowlarks (Sturnella) as well as those that do, such as sparrows of the genera Ammodramus and I~asserhcrVulws. The short pointed tails seem more likely an adaptation allowing the birds to dart through and turn quickly in the maze of vertical grass stems.

Voice: The song of which Audubon wrote so disparagingly is. uttered only by the male seaside sparrow, who seems to use it primarily to advertise the occupancy of his territory. It normally lasts just under two seconds, three-fourths of which are taken up by the final buzzing note. Saunders (1951) describes it as short and buzzlike, beginning with two or three rather faint short notes followed by a higher-pitched, louder, strongly accented buzzy note that drops slightly into the final trill, which starts loud and fades away toward the end. The song has been variously written tup tup ZEE reeeeeeeeee and tup TEE tie reeeeecceee (Saunders, 1951), cuteut, zh~-eeeeeeee (Peterson, 1947) and che-zhe~eege, che-zha, che-we~ge, chur-zh~e and too-szhek (Stone, 1937). My field notes contain the following renditions: CHUR-er eeeee, CIIUR eeeeee, and olca-CHE weeeee. These and other variations in syllabization occur not only between individual birds, but individuals also vary their song. I have heard birds giving a characteristic song suddenly sing a different type for a while, then revert to the original again.

The seasides usually sing from exposed perches on their territories such as tall cattail stems or tall or isolated marsh-elder bushes. The bill is elevated and opened considerably with each note, and the head bobs with the accented note. In Tomkins (1941) are excellent photographs of the seaside’s typical singing postures. The birds also perform an extended version of the song in flight, the male fluttering upward 10 or 20 feet and gliding back down into the marsh grass while buzzing. In the Lavallette and Chadwick populations the flight song was infrequent, of short duration, and seemingly unimportant. It is probably commoner and of greater significance in populations inhabiting marshes of even growth where prominent exposed perches are scarce, such as occur more plentifully along the coasts to the southward.

The seasides at Lavallette started singing the morning after their nocturnal arrival. Song is then at its inaxununi intensity among the resident birds, and they maintain it at a high level throughout incubation. After the eggs hatch and the males start helping feed the young song declines sharply. The birds start to sing at daybreak. One male I checked at Chadwick on May 6,1955, sang 395 times between 6:00 and 7:00 a.m., or 6.6 times per minute. Morning song decreases when the temperature rises markedly by 9 or 10, but in cloudy weather lasts longer into the day. Singing again increases toward dusk, but not to the frequency of the morning peak.

The species has a soft, lisping call note, probably the one Saunders (1951) refers to as a squeaky tseep, which functions as a social call to keep groups together. Migrating birds utter it frequently, and you hear it often from the wintering flocks. In early summer when the marshes are inhabited only by a stable breeding population this note is seldom used.

Both sexes use two types of alarm notes. One, a short chip or tick’ seems to signify apprehension for it is given when an intruder comes onto the territory and near the nest. The other, a high, sharp Isip uttered with a downward jerk of the tail, is indicative of a higher degree of excitement, as when a nest with well-grown young is being investigated.

Field marks: In its salt marsh habitat, which it seldom leaves unless driven by storm tides, the seaside sparrow is likely to be confused only with the sharp-tailed, swamp, or Savannah sparrows. The only other passerines apt to be found there are the two little marshes wrens and an occasional red-winged blackbird, which are readily distinguishable. When the birds can be seen clearly, as when the males are on territory and singing from the grass tops, the yellow spot before the eye and the white mustache mark along the jaw are unmistakable and diagnostic.

When not nesting the seaside is often hard to observe, for it is shy, retiring, and likes to stay hidden down among the marsh grass stems from which it can be difficult to flush. One’s usual view of it is of a very dark grayish sparrow that rises on fluttering wings, scales away just above the grass tops for perhaps 50 to 100 yards, and then quickly drops out of sight again. The other three sparrows commonly found in the salt marshes in fall and winter act much the same way, but with a little practice and experience are easily differentiated. The swamp sparrow is slightly larger, much ruddier, and has a distinctively longer tail. The Savannah sparrow is slightly smaller and much lighter in color. Both species strike me as flying more strongly, with less fluttering of the wings than the seaside and sharp-tail. The sharp-tail flies very much like the seaside, but can usually be recognized by its smaller size and browner color.

Enemies: A Lavallette nest that contained four 3-day-old nestlings on July 2 was empty when I checked it July 3, robbed by an unknown predator. Both the common crow (Corvus lrachyrhynchos) and the fish crow (C. oss{fragus) visited the marshes frequently as might be suspected. A marsh hawk (Circus cyaneus) was also in residence nearby, and whenever it appeared the sparrows disappeared quickly and quietly into the grass. I watched it make many passes at what I thought were sparrows, but I never saw it catch anything but microtine rodents.

The seaside sparrow has few natural enemies, for its salt marsh home is comparatively free of the reptile and mammalian predators that harass species inhabiting fresh marshes or upland fields. Perhaps the few raccoons, skunks, or foxes that wander out on the marshes get an occasional nest of eggs or young, and the bird-catching hawks must take an unwary adult or two, but no evidence of either is recorded in the literature. In listing the one known case of cowbird (Molothrus ater) parasitism on a seaside sparrow, Friedmaun (1949) comments: “The cowbird ordinarily does not penetrate brackish or salt water marshes, and so probably rarely foists any of its eggs on the birds that nest in such places. The seaside sparrow would appear, then, to be an unusual, and rarely imposed upon victim.”

The worst threat to the seaside sparrow is the steady shrinking of its habitat as the human population encroaches upon it and alters it. Stone (1937) described how the “draining and ‘development’ of the marshes” drove out all but a few pairs “of the thousands that once nested about Cape May.” He states “this species, the sharp-tail and the Marsh Wrens are actually threatened with extinction so far at least, as most of the New Jersey coast, is concerned.”

Fall and Winter: After the young have left the nest the adults continue to feed them for approximately 20 days. Young seaside sparrows have a characteristic method of flying and dropping back into the grass when they are flushed which makes them easy to recognize as birds of the year. Stone (1937) saw a young bird still being fed by an adult in Cape May County, N.J., on August 18, but remarks that the date is very unusual and probably due to a delayed nesting. At Lavallette all nesting duties were concluded early in August 1955, and the birds were then beginning to form flocks.

Cruickshank (1942) states that in the New York area “With the first light frost in September a definite southward movement sets in. It reaches a peak during the middle of October and is virtually concluded by the middle of November. A number of birds regularly linger until Christmas, and a few remain on the larger marshes throughout the winter.”

Stone (1937) writes that at Cape May “In the autumn we have recorded them as late as October 7,1923; October 25, 1929; October 19, 1931 and 1934; while birds seen on November 9, 1930, and November 21, 1926, may have been wintering individuals; as was one observed on January 23, 1927.” Practically every subsequent Audubon Christmas count has reported from one to a dozen individual seaside sparrows in the Cape May area.

Most of the northern population apparently winters in the Atlantic coastal marshes from Virginia south to northeastern Florida. Howell (1932) called it “A common winter resident on Amelia Island, where Worthington collected numerous specimens between October 18 and March 24.” The southernmost record is a bird taken at Fort Pierce, Fla., Jan. 5, 1964, and now in the collections of the Florida State Museum. DIsmIBuTIoN

Range: Tidal marshes from Massachusetts to Florida. Breeding Range: The northern seaside sparrow breeds in salt and brackish marshes from Massachusetts (Plum Island, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard) south to extreme northeastern North Carolina (Elizabeth City) and along Chesapeake Bay (north to Idlewilde and Kent Narrows, Maryland).

Winter Range: Winters in coastal and bay marshes from New York (Long Island) and Chesapeake Bay (Churchton, Md.) south to eastern Florida (Amelia Island, Ft. Pierce), occasionally north to Connecticut (New Haven) and Massachusetts (Plum Island).

Casual records: Casual in Maine (Shark Rock in outer Muscongus Bay).

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: New York: Suffolk County, April 22. Connecticut: New Haven, April 28. Massachusetts: Monomoy Island, April 14.

Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Taylor County, April 5. Georgia: Chatham, April 18. South Carolina: May 15.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Texas: High Island, October 31. South Carolina: October 23. Georgia: Savannah, October 3. Florida: Worthington Island, October 18.

Late dates of fall departure are: Texas: High Island, November 11. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vineyard, September 12 (median of 5 years, September 4). Rhode Island: South Auburn, October 8. Connecticut: New Haven, October 30. New York: Far Rockaway, November 25. New Jersey: Cape May, October 25. Virginia: Cape Henry, November 25.

Egg dates: Connecticut: 77 records, June 3 to July 6; 55 records, June 3 to June 13.

Maryland: 14 records, May 20 to June 29; 8 records, June 6 to June 12.

New Jersey: 63 records, May 18 to July 19; 33 records, June 7 to June 21.

New York: May 23 to July 2 (number of records not stated).

Rhode Island: 4 records, June 8 to July 4.


Contributed by ALEXANDER SPRUNT, JR.

A resident of the coastal marshes from Dare County, N.C., to southern Georgia, this sparrow, like Bachman’s and Swainson ‘s warbiers, was discovered near Charleston, S.C., by the Reverend John Bachman in the early 1830’s. When Audubon painted and described it, he named it for the English ornithologist, William MacGillivray, for whom he entertained a high regard.

In general appearance there is nothing striking about the seaside sparrows. Rather drab, often ragged-looking olive-gray birds, they give the impression of being definitely dingy and frayed, particularly when in worn breeding plumage. The yellow line before the eye and the white streak along the jaw are diagnostic of the species. A. m. macgillivraii is darker above than A. m. maritima, the back feathers and central rectrices are distinctly, often broadly streaked with black, and the streaks on t.he chest and sides are broader and darker.

The predominant growth of the wetter parts of the South Carolina salt marshes and bordering the wet creek edges is cord grass (Spartina alterniJolia), which is often displaced by wide expanses of black rush (Juncu.s roemerianus). Drier parts of the marsh support shorter grasses such as salt joint-grass (Paspalum vaginatum) and a rushgrass (Sporobolus virginic~ts). Still farther back on higher ground grows the groundsel bush (Baceharis halimijolia), which the low country negroes for some inscrutable reason call “she-muckle” and which bears beautiful cottony blooms. Along the edges of the marshes and on the occasional small marsh islands or hammocks grows the abundant wax myrtle (Myrica cerijera) and other vegetation of the sandhills and dunes.

Sharing this environment with the seaside sparrows and living in closest proximity to them are the long-billed marsh wren (Telmatodytes pal ustris) and the clapper rail (Rail s longirostris).

Nesting: Regarding the Georgia birds, Tomkins (1941) states that “the local colonies in the Savannah area begin to be peopled with singing birds by late March, and the ~rst wave appears to be all of males. A week or so later there are females among them.” Little appears to be known of the mating and courtship procedures in this form. The writer has never witnessed them or heard from anyone who has. That they differ from those of other subspecies seems unlikely.

In the Savannah, Ga., area, Tomkins (1941) notes the “nests may be built in many different situations * * * from eight inches above the marsh mud in Sporobolus-Paspalum to three feet in Spartina or Juncu.s, and up to five feet in Baceharis.” He adds that the top entrance nests “are built of the softer grass blades in the vicinity, and when not covered by the natural foliage, are canopied. This canopy was more nearly complete where there were heavily incubated sets of eggs, so probably it is added to as incubation progresses. The growing grasses are woven into the canopy if available. Those nests naturally sheltered by the foliage in the tops of Baceharis are without canopy.” On Cabbage Island, Ga., he found the birds “nesting in the head-high tops of the groundsel trees (Baceharis halimiJol’ia) that rimmed the sand-shell ridge back of the outer beach. The birds did not feed near the nests at all, but commuted back and forth from the nest locality to the wet banks of the salt creeks some two hundred yards back in the island.”

Arthur T. Wayne, the veteran ornithologist of the South Carolina Low Country from 1883 to 1930, knew this sparrow intimately and collected it often, but search as he might and did, he was not able to find its nest. He looked for it where he collected the birds in the salt marshes, and, as the years passed, his puzzlement increased. In 1910 he wrote: “I have been unable to find this form breeding on our coast, yet it is possible that it does, since the young in first plumage occurred during the second week in July, and the adults in worn breeding plumage are to be seen during the third week in July. A distinct northward migration takes place about April 16, and continues until April 27, when all the birds have gone north, and of course to their breeding grounds.”

Wayne had simply looked in the wrong place. When these sparrows leave the salt marshes in April, they retire just a few miles inland to nest in brackish or fresh water habitats, where Wayne just never happened to be at the right season. I (1924) described howl accompanied by E. B. Chamberlain, I had the good fortune to find the first nests in South Carolina. Driving down the Ocean Highway (U.S. Route 17) we saw several seaside sparrows fly across the road about 10 miles south of Charleston where it crosses a brackish marsh near Rantowles Creek. The birds flew into the marsh and disappeared into clumps of bulrusbes (Scirpus sp.) dotting the area. Unable to stop then, we returned at our first opportunity a few days later on May 16, 1924, and in less than an hour found five nests. We notified Wayne at once, and he came out and had no difficulty finding more nests a mile or so east of where we found ours.

The sparrows neste(l in a loose colony here in 1925, 1926, and 1927. In 1925 the birds were in the area as early as April 10, but we found no nests until April 29, when they contained fresh eggs. The nests here were all rather deep cups made of dried grasses and attached to the upright stems of the needle-pointed buirushes. They were from 4 to 6 inches from the ground and, as a rule, toward the outside of the clump. On May 24, 1927, a small colony was found breeding in completely fresh water surroundings near Goose Creek Reservoir, Charleston County, some 12 miles north of the city. Four nests were found, all practically on the ground in short green grass (Paspalum sp.) much like Bermuda grass.

Incubation consumes about 12 days. In the Charleston area apparently only one brood is raised, though we found young out of the nest and able to fly about 25 feet as early as May 22, 1924. Tomkins (1941) comments about the Savannah area: “The nesting season here is very long. Incomplete sets of eggs have been found in late April, and young birds partly fledged have been seen in late August. The greatest number of nests have been found in June and nearly as many in May, but not so many visits have been made in July and August. The natural supposition would be that two or more broods are raised each year.”

Eggs: The measurements of 27 eggs average 21.1 by 15.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure p3.4 by 16.~, 19.8 by 15.5, and 21.0 by 14.3 millimeters.

Food: Living as it does so extensively in salt marsh, maegillivraii’8 food appears to be predominantly animal matter, a departure from usual sparrow custom. Small marine life such as various worms, tiny shrimp, and crabs, together with grasshoppers, moths, flies, and spiders compose the bulk of its food. I have watched these birds catch the little moths that flit about the stems and tips of the marsh grass, as well as foraging about on the mud in and out among the stems of the grass. Seeds of the cordgrass and glasswort make up part of the vegetable content.

Behavior: The way of life pursued by macgihivraii is in most respects typical of that of the species. It spends much time on the muddy floor of the marshes searching amid the thickly growing stems for its food and usually keeping well out of sight. Its characteristic call note helps to locate it at times. This bird responds to the “squeak” readily, and in a manner surprising to one unfamiliar with this technique. I have often looked over a stretch of marsh apparently void of avian life of any sort. Then, after a few moments of making the squeaking sound, I have seen these birds pop up all about, swinging on the marsh stems and peering excitcdly around. Close observation is quite possible if one keeps perfectly still. 1 have a small dock over a salt crcek that makes in from the Inland Waterway. Sitting there quietly I have had these sparrows feed, preen, and search about within a few yards or even feet of me.

Its flight is the usual “family” type, never for long distances, and marked by a precipitate drop into the grass at its termination. Audubon (1839) described it as performed “with apparently slow beats of the wings,” but I have alxvays been impressed with quite the reverse; the wings seem to be moved very rapidly, almost as to constitute a blur, and strongly reminiscent of those of some heavy, stout-bodied insect. The bird is often difficult to flush, and even if one marks the exact spot of descent and makes for it immediately, it is by no means certain that the bird will flush again. Upon alighting the bird must often run some distance under the shelter of the grass, and so elude the searcher.

Voice: The notes of the seaside sparrows are notoriously difficult to transcribe into words. Audubon says macgillivra7’i’s song impressed him as being “impossible to imitate,” and he describes it as “a sort of roll of five or six syllables.” My (1924) own description set down when recording the discovery of the bird’s nesting in South Carolina was “The song is very peculiar, consisting of a sort of guttural roll, heard only when the observer is very near the bird, then a short trill, ending with a strange rasping buzz.” ‘rhough the term “roll” is somewhat indefinite, no other word seems to express the effect. more adequately. The song is often uttered in flight, the bird rising into the air, then dropping down to lust above the grass tops and leveling off for varying distances, singing as it goes, before dropping suddenly into the grass.

The call note might be translated as chip, but that gives little idea of the note’s distinctive inflection and tonal quality. It is doubtful if the call of this subspecies can be differentiated from that of nominate mantima.

Fall and Winter: These seasons find rnacgillivraii in the great salt marshes. The best times to observe them are when t.he full moon forces the tides considerably above normal levels and floods the marshes. The birds then throng along the edges of the highlands end of islands in the marsh where they are easily seen. As Wayne (1910) noted, they first appear back in the Carolina marshes in late July, and they may be found there, usually in loose flocks, until the following spring. Some southward movement takes place, for birds of this race have been collected in winter as far down the coast as the marshes of St. Johns County, Fla.

Range: MacGihivray’s seaside sparrow is resident in the Atlantic coastal marshes from North Carolina (Dare County) south to Georgia (Camden County); casual in winter southward to Florida (St. John’s County).

Egg dates: Georgia: 48 records, May 20 to June 29; 20 records, May 10 to May 30.


Contributed by OLIVER L. AUSTIN, JR.

This poorly-marked subspecies, which Griscom (1944) regarded as a “barely-recognizable minor population in northeast ri” is very similar to macgillivraii, from which it differs allegedly in averaging slightly smaller and in lacking the broad dark shaft stripes on the middle tail feathers. The 1957 A.O.U. Check-List gives its distribution as “Re8ixlent locally in salt marshes of northeastern Florida from Amelia Island to New Smyrna.”

The marshes at New Smyrna Beach, where Howell collected Oberholser’s type in 1925, was apparently then the form’s southern limit, for Howell (1932) states: “Search was made for these birds in the marshes of Mosquito Lagoon in May 1925, but none was found there; apparently there are no breeding colonies of Seaside Sparrows south of New Smyrna, except on Merritt Island, where the Dusky Seaside occurs.” This was verified by the late Donald ~J. Nicholson of Orlando, a veteran egg collector who knew the Florida seaside sparrows very well. He (1946) states: “the birds breed within a very limited area in very large numbers, within a radius of four miles of New Smyrna. * * * I have not found the species nesting South of New Smyrna. A few breed as far North as Daytona Beach along the Halifax River. I have not found the birds in apparently suitable spots along the river south of Matanzas Inlet where they again are found in colonies.”

A few years later Nicholson (1950) noted an alarming decline in the New Smyrna population:

As recent a date as 1939, hundreds of birds still bred in this marsh, but since that date have become increasingly fewer in numbers, and during the Springs of 1948 and 1949, when repeated searches were made by both Wray H. Nicholson and myself, not a single bird, or even an old nest, was in evidence. They have completely disappeared.

About 15 years ago it was noticed that the birds stopped nesting on the south side of the road that splits this marsh, since this side had become thickly grown up to Mangrove trees, and now on the northern side of the road the same changed condition has also taken place and has driven out these Sparrows which apparently cannot survive in marshes crowded by tree-growth * *

A far more likely cause of their disappearance was the heavy sprayings with DDT to which these marshes and those along the Halifax River northward to Daytona and Ormond Beach were repeatedly subjected for mosquito control in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. Persistent searching by Charles II. Trost and myself since 1959 has still failed to reveal any seaside sparrows breeding between Matauzas Inlet and the dusky seaside colony on Merritt Island. Currently (1964) the pelonota population occupies a spotty distribution scattered in the few suitable marshes remaining from Matanzas Inlet northward some 70 miles to the Georgia: Florida boundary.

Nesting: We are indebted to D. J. Nicholson (1946) for the following account of the nesting of these sparrows at New Smyrna, where he, his brother Wray, and their friend Joseph C. Howell, Jr., often collected together. He writes:

As many as 40 occupied nests and as many old nests have been found in a single day’s bunt by the three of us. The nests are by no means easy to locate an~d one can only imagine the true population of this New Sniyrna colony.

Twenty years ago the site in which they hred was mostly grown up to seliroraic and the scattered patches of salt marsh grass which bordered the edges of meandering streams, dotted with a few very young mangrove bushes. At that time the vast majority of nests were to he found in the matted salicornia or in salt marsh grass, with but an occasional nest being found in the small mangrove bushes. But of recent years the marsh has gradually filled with great numbers of mangrove bushes and trees now having grown to considerable size. * * * This has caused a marked change in the former nesting habits of the seasides, which now seem to prefer mangrove bushes and trees in which to build their neats, placing them from a couple of feet to as high as 14 feet above the mud and water. They still continue to nest in the matted salicornia which well conceals their nests in this expansive marsh. * * * Nests placed in salt marsh grass are frequently arched, but those in salicornia or in mangroves are not.

Usually the nests are placed in a crotch of a young mangrove from two to five feet from the mud. Sometimes they are built near the ends of the lower branches among the ever-present jungle of salicornia which envelops every inch of ground, shady or otherwise in the marsh. Beneath the mangroves, this succulent plant grows luxuriantly and many nests are found in this growth in the shade, and it also affords wonderful concealment.

The nests are made entirely of dead marsh grass blades and stems which are collected in a soggy condition, and the adhering sticky mud aids in binding the nest securely as it dries. These nests are about the size of your closed fist, deeply cupped to receive the three or four eggs * *

Nesting usually begins in earnest about the middle of April but sometimes a full set is found by the tenth of April. Nesting continues into August and there is scarcely a day during the nesting period that eggs cannot be found. I have found in different parts of a colony, little areas where most of the nests held young and in others mostly fresh eggs. This only a few hundred yards apart. Generally speaking the height of the first nesting is April 20th; second sets June 1st, and third sets July lOth: 15th, on into August. Perhaps a fourth laying is fairly generaL

Eggs: D. J. Nicholson (1946) says the three or four eggs are: white or greenish-white, fincly and heavily marked with irregular spots or specks of light or dark brown, grayish, or “lavender” markings. Some are heavily capped or wreathed at the large end and, in addition well sprinkled over the entire surface. Occasionally a specimen is found with a cap or wreath on the small end of the egg. Many have a bluish or greenish ground color, differing in this respect from the eggs of the dusky seaside sparrow whose eggs are usually white of ground color. The shapes of the eggs vary considerably, some being quite roundish, others very long and narrow, but the majority are ovate. As compared in a large series with the eggs of the Dusky, the latter are lighter in color, partly because of the white ground color and also larger areas of the eggs are unspotted. However sets of both species can be matched.

Young: The same author (1946) states: “Usually the incubating does not commence until the last egg is laid, however, in a number of nests incubation does vary in eggs of a set several days or more. I have never determined the length of time it takes to hatch the eggs, but about 10 to 11 days should be about correct.

“The newly hatched young are practically naked with the exception of a little smoky grey fuzz along the back and on top of the head. By the time the fledglings are ready to leave the nests the yellow on the bend of the shoulder is present. * * * They remain in the nest about 7 or 8 days.”

Voice: To quote Nicholson (1946) again:

Towards the cnd of March the marshes are fairly buzzing with the purring, wheezing songs of the Smyrna sparrow as the males perch in the concealment of the glossy mangrove leaves. He tires of one perch and seeks another fifty or seventy-five yards away flying low over the rank growth. Every so often he fairly “explodes” with passion leaving his concealment to rise on fluttering wiugs sixty or seventy feet above the marsh uttering his erratic little song as he goes up and down dropping out of sight in the salicornia. All day long throughout the breeding season many pairs of rivals are seen chasing each other swiftly here and there chippering as they go. Invariably as the female rises and flies from her nest the male leaves his perch and chases her uttering rapid chipperings as they skin the tops of the low growth. The song reminds one strongly of that of redwing blackbirds; the initial part of the song resembles that of the redwing. Their song is unlike that of the dusky.

To this Howell (1932) adds: “The birds are shy, and during the breeding season remain concealed in the dense vegetation of the marsh a good part of the time, and may be heard chirping in these retreats. Every little while one will fly to a small mangrove bush or a weed stalk and deliver his short, weak song, which suggests a faint, distant song of the Redwing. It consists of a sharp, double note, followed by a weak, buzzing trill. Occasionally a bird indulges in a more prolonged and varied flight song. When flushed, the birds frequently fly for 50 yards or more before alighting.”

Food: Howell (1932) states: “Examination of 13 stomachs of birds of this subspecies taken on the east coast of Florida showed the bird’s food to consist wholly of animal matter: small crabs, amphipods, marine worms, dragon flies, grasshoppers, beetles, bugs, moths, Hymenoptera, and spiders.”

Enemies: As a final note, D. J. Nicholson (1946) adds: “It is outstanding the percentages of the nests found with broken eggs or egg shells; fully one fourth of the nests found have been broken up by some unknown agencies which I suspect is mice which infest the marsh. It is almost useless to mark down nests with a view of returning later to find a set of eggs. Nine times out of ten you will find upon your return that the nest has been deserted or torn up. Rarely is the nest occupied. Ants are very numerous and build their nests everywhere in the marsh and doubtless are responsible for part of the damage.”

Range: The Smyrna seaside sparrow is resident locally in salt marshes of northeastern Florida from Amelia Island to Matanzas Inlet, formerly to New Smyrna.

Egg dates: Florida: 9 records, April 26 to June 19.

( The following subspecies are discussed in this section: Ammospiza maritima peninsulae (Allen) nod A. M. juncicola (Griscom and Nichols).)

Contributed by OLIVER L. AUSTIN, JR.

The extensive marshes of black rush (Juncus roemeriamus) that rim the Gulf Coast of Florida almost continuously from Tarpon Springs northward and westward to Wakulla and Franklin Counties support resident populations of seaside sparrows distinguishable at a glance from all the Atlantic Coast populations (except nigrescene, the blackest of the entire complex) by their darker color above and below. A gradual dine is evident from the smaller, grayer populalion in the south (peninsulae) to the slightly larger, darker, and dorsally browner birds in the northwest corner of the range in the Wakulla area (junekold).

Little has been published on the habits and behavior of these subspecies, which do not seem to differ materially from those described for the Atlantic Coast forms. Howell (1932) tells of his experiences afield with peninsulae as follows:

At the mouth of the Suwannee River, on a cold, windy day in January, the bir Is stuck very close to the dense, matted marsh grass, and it took me an hour and a half to flush three or four individuals, only one of which was collected. During the breeding season, however, the males give frequent vent to their springtime exuberance by ascending to the tops of the tallest rushes and rendering their curious little song, then perhaps making a short flight before dropping into the cover of the marsh. The song, though not loud, has considerable carrying power. Heard at close range it begins with a faint click in the throat, then a low throaty tone, followed by the song proper, which is of about two seconds’ duration, and consists of two, or sometimes three, notes slurred into one, ending in a trill, this suggesting the finishing note of a Red-wing’s song.

At Port Richey, where we found the birds breeding abundantly, we collected well-grown young on May 28, but failed to find any nests. At Elfers, June 2, 1929, Nicholson observed two nests, 6 and 14 feet above the ground in mangrove trees. On that date the birds had hatched their first broods and only broken egg shells were found in the nests. At the same locality, on May 31, 1931, Oscar Baynard found a nest with 4 fresh eggs, 2~ feet up in a tuft of “needle-grass” (Juncus), and on June 2 and 11, several more nests were found in similar situations.

Of his experiences with juncicol,a the same author writes:

This race is very similar in its habits to Scott’s Seaside, and inhabits the same type of marsh, one in which there is a very heavy growth of Juncus. In some places, as on St. Vincent Island, the birds were shy and difficult to approach, while in other places, as at St. Marks Light and Rock Island, they were less suspicious. At Rock Island they were found in the low growth of Salicornia as well as in the tall rushes. At Goose Creek, Wakulla County, in January, the birds were very numerous in the heavy stands of Juncus, and on sunny days they gave utterance to numerous little squeaky, chippering songs. Even at that date, a squeaking noise made on the back of the hand would often bring a bird out of the cover, to fly rapidly toward the sound and alight on top of the rushes. A nest noted near St. Mark’s lighthouse, May 18, 1926, was placed in a thinly grassed area of marsh, 22 inches above the ground in a small clump of rushes, and contained three naked young and one egg.

Donald J. Nicholson sent me the following notes on peninsulae:

“I have found these sparrows breeding in the marshes near Elfers in Pasco County from early April to late June. They nest very much as do all other seasides, usually in small, loose colonies, the nests being at least 50 or more feet apart. They build a neat, open cup of dead Jurtcus stems and grasses lined with either or both. Nests I found concealed under drifts of dead vegetation left by high tides on top of the tall Juncus also contained bits of a silvery, ribbonlike white seaweed.

“Most nests are well out in the marsh, only a few hundred feet back from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, often where the water was two or three feet deep and touched the bottom of the nests at high tide. I also found nests here in mangroves as high as fourteen feet up. All are remarkably well hidden, and rarely does one ever flush a sitting bird from the nest.

“The usual clutch is 4 eggs, but many lay only 3, and often but 2 eggs complete the set. No sets of 5 have ever been reported. Many of the sets I collected in the Elfers region differed from those of all the other forms in being more finely and densely speckled with reddish-brown markings. However, Charles G. Doe wrote me in 1942 that his collection of about 150 sets from the Cedar Keys area ‘show a wide variation from almost spotless to very dark, and some that cannot be told from song sparrow eggs!’ ” Of the Wakulla seaside Nicholson writes: “My scant experiences with these sparrows during the nesting season found them exceedingly shy. They remained hidden even when singing in the dense, needlelike Juncu.~. On Apr. 10, 1959, I collected a set of 3 eggs incubated four or five days, from a dense patch of Juncus at Wakulla Beach. The next day I collected another set of 3 fresh eggs and a third of 2 fresh eggs. These, so far as I know, are the only eggs of this race in collections. They are similar in both size and shape and markings to those of the other races.”

Howell (1932) says of the food of peninsulae: “Five stomachs of birds of this race, examined in the Biological Survey, indicated food preferences similar to those of the east-coast birds; spiders, grasshoppers, and beetles formed the bulk of the contents, with some bivalves and gastropods.” Of juncicola he writes: “The stomachs of six birds of this race examined contained practically the same items in the food as were found in the food of the other subspecies; small crabs, however, were taken in greater quantities, amounting in some cases to more than half of the total food contents.”

Range: Scott’s seaside sparrow is resident in salt marshes of the west coast of Florida from Pepperfish Keys to Old Tampa Bay. The Wakulla seaside sparrow is resident in coastal marshes of the northern Gulf coast of Florida from Escambia Bay to southern Taylor County.

Egg dates: Scott’s, Florida: 43 records, April 5 to July 7; 24 records, April 12 to May 10.

Wakulla, Florida: 4 records, May 3 to June 6.

(The following subspecies are discussed in this section: Ammospiza maritima fisheri (Chapman) and A. m. sennetti (Allen). )
Contributed by ROBERT A. NORRIS


The seaside spa1~row populations of the Gulf Coast from extreme western Florida to the marshes of Nueces and Copano Bays in southern Texas represent the races fisheri and sennetti, the Louisiana and the Texas seaside sparrows. A. m. fisheri occupies most of this range, sennetti being restricted to the environs of the two Texas bays. Both differ from the nominate race, maritima, in the distinct black streaking of their upper parts. Most examples of sennetti are relatively pale and have a unique greenish-gray cast to the upper parts; most fisheri are darker and browner both above and below. A. m. fiskeri differs from the races macgillisraji, pdonota, peninsulae, and junci,cola by its conspicuously huffy chest, sides, and flanks, .sennetti by its paler and greener coloring above.

Ludlow Griscom (1944) considered fisheri the most variable of all the seaside sparrow forms. In a large series of breeding birds he distinguished two color phases, a dark and a light, each “sufficiently distinct so that extreme specimens would be distinguishable in life,” and “numerous * * * ‘intermediates'” between the two. He also called attention to an apparent correlation between the darker colored seasides and a heavier vegetative cover in their habitats. Further study of this suspected ecological relationship and of the genetic characteristics of the color phases, if any, might well be rewarding.

In many of the gulf coast marshes seaside sparrows, like long-billed marsh wrens (Telmatodytes palustHs), are common to abundant birds. Both tend, however, to be rather local in their occurrence (Kopman, 1907; Howell, 1928; Burleigh, 1944). Along some stretches of coast the sparrows’ spotty distribution is due in part to man’s activities. Thus Griscom (1944) notes: “Local observers report it as extirpated at Brownsville, Aransas Pass and Galveston Island by civilization, naval installations, and oil wells.” The sparrows are usually strictly coastal in distribution, their range extending inland only where salt marsh is present, such as the pair Simmons (1914) reported nesting in a salt marsh about six miles south of the Houston courthouse, “fully twenty-two miles from Galveston Bay and fifty miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

One of the principal plants of the marshes harboring these birds is salt grass (Distichlis apicata), which in some areas may be alive with fiddler crabs and littorine snails. Other monocotyledonous plants include black rush or needle grass (Juncus roernerian us) and sand rush (Fimbristylis ca.stanea). From a sparrow’s-eye view (or a marsh wren’s for that matter) a most important component of the salt-meadow vegetation is a small shrub called honey mangrove (Avicennia nizida), which provides these marsh-dwelling passerines much-favored cover both in Louisiana and in some parts of the Texas coast (Brooks, 1933). In some areas marsh-elder (Iva) bushes are also important (Griscom and Nichols, 1920). In coastal Mississippi Burleigh (1944) states: “One of its requirements during the breeding season seems to be the presence of clumps of sharp-pointed rushes (Juncus) in which to nest. Where this growth is lacking in stretches of salt marsh that are otherwise suitable, the species occurs only in rather limited numbers during the winter months.”

Neither the Louisiana nor the Texas seaside sparrow has been the subject of an extensive life history study, but 1 was able to make some observations on breeding individuals of .Iishcri at the race’s type locality, Grand Isle, La., in April 1960. Consequently the following incomplete life history deals mainly with fisheri, with the few squibs of information available on sennetti incorporated here and there.

Territory: In the early morning of Apr. 15, 1960, I mist-netted and color-banded a breeding pair of seaside sparrows in a salt grass: honey mangrove association on Grand Isle. I placed red plastic bands on the male (subsequently called Red) and yellow bands on the female (called Yellow). The female showed a full-sized vascular-edematous brood patch, the male no sign of such a patch; both appeared to be in the light color phase. I watched the activities of this pair and of some of their neighbors on April 15-17 and again on April 30 and May 1. A grid of stakes set out in the march at 20-pace intervals allowed me to map individual movements and from these to work out the extent of each bird’s territory.

The size of the area the banded pair utilized in the mid-April period was 1.7 acres, most of it grassy. About 15 to 20 percent was strips or scattered patches of knee- to breast-high mangrove, and about 10 percent consisted of salt-water pools and narrow sloughs. As some parts of the marsh were apparently little used by seaside sparrows, the over-all population density seemed to be less than one bird per acre. A transect census I ran later through 3,400 feet of suitablelooking marsh yielded a rough estimate of 68 sparrows per 100 acres.

An unmated male (called UB for unbanded) maintained a territory to the south and west of Red’s, and a pair, of which I saw very little, held another tract toward the south and east. I saw encounters between the color-banded pair and UB a number of times. On April 16, when Yellow’s eggs had begun to hatch, I noted both Red and UB in a mangrove bush near the territory border. They were hopping from branch to branch rather slowly and deliberately, within one to three feet of each other. Low chut notes were given regularly by Red, sparingly by UB. Yellow visited the bush briefly. For a moment she spread her wings slightly, fluffed out her feathers, and then flew to the vicinity of the nest. Red and UB remained in the bush perched about a foot from each other and continued to call. There was no special display. At times, Red, the more agitated bird, assumed what seemed to be an “uncomfortable” position, as when straddled between two separate twigs, one foot stretched out laterally to each. After about five minutes Red flew to a tiny mangrove 12 paces away, and JIB promptly sang several times. Red continued to give chut notes and once started to sing but “swallowed” the song. Soon he moved farther away, and shortly UB also left the bush and went off in another direction.

Most of the sites marking the approximate boundary of the territory were Red’s song posts. Some of the peripheral points to the south the female established as she flew to various spots, mostly in open marsh, to forage for herself and the newly hatched young.

Observations on April 30 and May 1 indicated considerable relaxation of Red’s and Yellow’s territorial boundaries, for JIB had moved in from the south and west and was now frequenting about one-third of the pair’s former home range. Red and Yellow were now associating with bob-tailed young, which were able to fly short distances. JIB, still apparently unmated, sang frequently, Red much less so. At times, though, the two males sang at about the same rate, the songs tending to alternate. Around midday, April 30, JIB began pursuing Red over large parts of the territory. The repeated pursuit flights gave the impression that JIB was “taking over.” But Red was not being dominated completely.

About 7:20 a.m. the following day I found Red and UB hopping about in salt grass only two or three feet apart. They presently engaged in a brief but apparently inconclusive aerial battle just above the grass tops. Shortly after this scuffle, Red was singing in a mangrove clump close by while JIB sang some 60 paces away not far from the former nest site. A little later, about 8:00 a.m., I saw the two males once again close together toward the southern part of the territory in low grass and on the ground. Their mutual attitude was manifestly hostile. Though no particular displays were observed, another brief “upfluttering” battle carried them above the grass tops. Neither seemed to give ground in this encounter. Soon afterward UB left and flew to the vicinity of the old nest. A little later I saw Red chasing UB, again in the southern part of the territory. Two or three times on April 30 I saw Red carrying strands of nest material. Possibly he was beginning to build a new nest, but I was not able to find one.

Nesting: The nest of Red and Yellow when I found it April 15 contained three eggs and one tiny nestling. Made of interlaced strands of grasses secured to upright stalks of Disticklis, it was almost globular with an opening on one side somewhat toward the top. Its bottom was about eight inches above the ground, which was covered by about an inch of water. The same day I found another nest of similar construction, its bottom about nine inches above the barely submerged ground. This nest was fastened between three upright Aricennia shoots at the border of a patch of these mangroves 2h to 3 feet high. It contained four downy young an estimated three days old.

The literature contains few reports of nests. Kopman (1915) mentions finding “a nest on Battledore Island [La.], July 23, 1908, containing four young a few days old. It was built of grass and the opening, on one side, was rather large. It was four feet from the ground in Avicennia nitida, a bush that is common along the coast.” In a salt marsh south of Houston, Simmons (1915) flushed a seaside sparrow “from a nest on the moist ground in a clump of thick grass. The nest was composed of coarse dry grasses, lined with finer, and contained three well fledged young. The nest was not a domed structure, but was more on the order of nests of the Florida Red-wing (Agelajus phoeniceus flo~danus) which surrounded it, for some of the nesting material was entwined about the stalks of the grass. Inside, the nest measured two and a fourth inches in diameter by one and a half deep. Both parents were present, and though nervous were not at all shy, for they approached within three or four feet of ns, perching for a moment on one reed and then on another.” Although little information is available on number of broods or span of breeding season infiskeri and sennetti, these races probably resemble pelonota of the northeastern coast of Florida, which Nicholson (1946) found laid three and perhaps four clutches between April and August.

Eggs: Limited data suggest that eggs of fisheri and sennetti are essentially like those of the nominate form and other races of the seaside sparrow. The clutch size is usually three or, more commonly, four. The length of the incubation period apparently has not been determined.

The measurements of 16 eggs of fisheri average 20.4 by 15.4 millimeters; those showing the four extremes measure 21.5 by 15.3, 20.8 by 15.8, and 18.7 by 14.7. The measurements of 16 sennetti eggs average 20.4 by 15.7 millimeters; those showing the four extremes measure 21.9 by 16.1, 1.9.0 by 15.0, and 20.1 by 16.5 millimeters.

Young: On April 15 from 5:15 to 6:04 p.m., I watched Yellow’s movements to and from the nest, which then contained three eggs and one tiny nestling. Red sang throughout this period. Yellow’s four sessions on the nest, which involved incubating and brooding, ranged from 4 to 10 minutes and averaged 7.2 minutes. Her five recesses for foraging ranged from 1.5 to 6 minutes and averaged 4.1 minutes. On leaving the nest she usually gave a series of sharp, high-pitched flight notes, jee-jee-jeejee-jee-jeee’u-jjeee’u-jeee½.t, as she flew to grassy spots 35 to 50 yards south of the nest. She exercised caution on each return, which usually consisted of one long flight, a pause in the grass, and then one or more short flights to the nest. She was still active after sunset, which came at 6:20.

The next day between 8:30 and 9:00 am., I noted both Yellow and Red near the nest. It was apparent that Red had discovered the young, of which there were now three fluffy ones plus one pipped egg. As I examined the nestlings, Yellow approached but remained in the grass about eight yards away uttering a series of low chut notes. Red, too, gave these notes whenever I was near him, even at places away from the nest. It seemed as if the appearance of the young made him more concerned by my presence. He sang intermittently.

The nestlings were well endowed with patches of natal down which I described in my notes as “smoke gray” or “mouse gray.” Dense tufts in the coronal and occipital areas were clearly separated, as were those in the spinal and femoral areas. The maximum length of down feathers on the dorsum was approximately eight millimeters. Symmetrical tufts of relatively long down characterized the scapular and alar tracts, and there were two or three tufts of short whitish down in the lower crural tracts. Little strips of short whitish down marked the ventral tracts in the belly region. From the ventral aspect two or three short whitish bits of down, which we might call “inner crural down,” could be seen where the inner part of the leg meets the skin of the belly. Young birds found in another nest the same day had down like that of Red’s and Yellow’s offspring except that the crural tracts, both “inner” end “lower,” were lacking.

In late April in another part of the Grand Isle marshes I caught a newly fledged seaside sparrow from which I entered the following description of the fresh juvenal plumage in my notes:

“Bill dusky-horn color, paler at tip. Gape pale whitish-yellow. Iris brown. Crown and back broadly streaked with blackish, with dull ochraceous-brown feather edgiurs. Rump feathers somewhat lax or fluffy, the feathers with blackish central areas and ochraceousbuff eduin~s Rectrices ensheathed for nearly half their length (these being up to 20 millimeters long), blackish centrally with dull, buffy brown edgings. Wing coverts (except primary) blackish, edged and tipped with grayish buff (lesser coverts) to ochraceous buff (middle and greater coverts). Primary coverts dusky with slightly paler edgings. Remiges or flight feathers dusky, becoming edged with brownish buff on inner secondaries and especially on tertials. Remex sheaths five to seven millimeters long. Subterminally on outer web and along border cf inner web of tertials the brownish buff becomes pale buff. Alular coverts whitish with a grayish spot in center of each feather, giving juvenile the appearance of having a whitish bend of the wing. Alulae dusky with whitish edges along outer webs. Under wing coverts whitish. Auricular region dark or dusky with some buffy interspersed. Chin whitish. Loral region and trace of superciliary stripe dull buffy. Submalar region and upper breast buffy, with rather heavy, blurry streaking. Streaks largely confined to upper breast but extend, in less well defined fashion, down onto sides and flanks. Sides and flanks also huffy, though paler than on upper breast. Lower breast and upper belly whitish; undersurface becoming huffy on lower belly and crissum. Anterior crural tracts buffy whitish; posterior aspect brownish gray. Feet grayish-horn color.”

Lowery (1955) states that “individuals that have passed through the postjuvenal molt resemble full adults but have a stronger wash of buff on the breast and about the face.”

As noted previously, Red’s and Yellow’s nest contained three young and a pipped egg the morning of April 16. In mid-morning I timed one of Yellow’s periods away from the nest at 15.5 minutes, while two sessions on the nest were 2 and 5.5 minutes. When she flew from the nest she usually gave a succession of chut notes unlike the highpitched calls she gave the previous afternoon. For the race pel.onota Nicholson (1946) claims: “Invariably as the female rises and flies from her nest the male leaves his perch and chases her uttering rapid chipperings as they skim the tops of the low growth.” I saw no such behavior in my banded pair. Red spent considerable time near the nest, but T did not see him go to it during the morning. Once near the nest he scolded a red-winged blackbird with a rapidly uttered series of notes, bzzt-bzzt-bzzt-brzt-bzzt. He also spent time in other parts of the territory and sang at intervals.

Watching the nest site steadily from 2:15 to 4:33 p.m., I saw the nestlings fed 11 times, 6 times by Yellow and 5 by Red, or about 4.8 feedings per hour, and virtually no time was spent in brooding. My presence may have slowed the birds’ feeding rate somewhat. They always approached the nest stealthily. Several times Red made arching flights over the nest before settling down in the grass and then slinking toward it. During this afternoon period Yellow flew from the nest in complete silence. At 4:16 p.m., the neighboring male, UB, came in with food in his bill as if he intended to feed the young. Apparently he did not succeed, for Yellow chased him away twice for distances of 15 to 20 feet, uttering as she did so a series of subdued husky tehurt-tchurt-tchurt-tcAurt notes, softer, slightly higher pitched, and more rapidly delivered than her chut notes.

When I revisited Red’s and Yellow’s territory April 29 both parents continued to give chut and also higher-pitched zeet notes from time to time. The nest was empty, and I saw Yellow feed the short-tailed fledglings in the salt grass at several different places on the territory. I saw neither Red nor UB, who by that time occupied a large part of the territory, feed the young, though either may have done so.

Food: According to Oberholser (1938), “the food of this bird reflects the character of its habitat: marine worms, crustaceans, dragonflies, grasshoppers, moths, beetles, bugs, and spiders, with some mollusks.” Howell (1928) provides a not dissimilar list, including also crickets, caterpillars, flies, wasps, small crabs, and some weed and grass seeds.

Voice: Kopman (1915) after stating that the Louisiana seaside sparrow is ‘ian extremely abundant breeder in all tidewater marshes,” reports having “seen scores at a time in the rushes and marsh grasses, perched just below the level of the grass tops, delivering in more or less regular concert their strange monotonous songs. The usual song sounds like ‘te-dunk-chee-e-e-e.’ Sometimes the trill alone is given. Lowery (1955) says: “The notes have been perfectly described by Peterson as evtcut, zhe’-eeeeeeee.” At Grand Isle I jotted down various renditions from thk-ze-e-e-e-e-e to zeee-chrepl-ze-e-e-e-e-e, there being one, two, or even three not always distinct syllables preceding the buzzy ze-e-e-e-e.

Red and other males sang perched in grass, rush, sedge, or mangrove at heights of one to three or more feet. As they utter each song they stretch the head and neck up perceptibly, but point the bill only slightly upward. Usually singing birds stand fairly erect with the feet close together, but occasionally they sing while straddling between two adjoining branches or grass stems. Sometimes they hold the tail drooped, and sometimes erect at a 50- or 60-degree angle from the back. I once recorded 12 songs per minute for Red, and 15, 16, and 18 per minute for JYB. Within a given minute-long period an individual’s song tended to be a bit irregular. Various circumstances interrupt the males’ singing now and then, including the birds’ need to forage intermittently.

I heard comparatively elaborate flight songs at irregular intervals and at various times of the day. In a typical one I witnessed about 10 a.m. April 16 Red suddenly flew up from the grass in a steep climb of about 70 to 80 degrees, uttering a very high-pitched see-see-8ee-see8ee-see as he rose. When he reached the summit some 15 to 20 feet above the marsh and began to descend, he delivered more emphatic tcAerp-d~ee’-tcherp-chee’ notes. He then pitched groundward as steeply as he rose, with a series of buzzy ze-e-e-e-e-e notes that could almost be syllabified as buzz-zz-zz-zz-zz-zz. The entire performance lasted but a few seconds, yet it took decidedly longer than the regular song. Also the phrases were more clearly separated than those of most songs delivered from perches.

On April 15 the seaside sparrows, and the redwings and marsh wrens as well, sang more or less regularly in the late hours of the day. In almost any given minute, a song from at least one species could be heard. After watching the sun go down at 6:20 p.m., I heard blackbirds singing until about 6:40, marsh wrens until 6:46, and the sparrows Red and UB, respectively, until 6:45 and 6:50, when it was indeed dusk.

Enemies: My limited experiences in Louisiana, together with an examination of the literature, reveals very little regarding predators of the racesfis&ri and senr&etti. In April 1960, I noted in the Grand Isle marshes a number of ribbon snakes (Thamnophi.s sauritws) and a great many tracks of raccoons (Proc yon lotor). Either of these animals might prey on marsh passerines to some extent. Stevenson and Meitzen (1946) found the remains of a nestling seaside sparrow m the nest of a white-tailed hawk (Buteo albicaudatu.s) in Texas.

Among other hazards that affect seaside sparrows are storms such as hurricane Audrey, which blasted the southwest coast of Louisiana m late June, 1957. Though such storms doubtless wreak havoc among the seasides and other marshland dwellers, it is both interesting and gratifying to read Newman’s (1957) observation: “On Aug. 9 at Grand Chenier, 8 Seaside Sparrow were quickly squeaked up at one spot in the marsh that had been under 10 feet of water 6 weeks before.

Fall and Winter: Griscom (1948) states that “fisheri is now proved to be a permanent resident at all localities of record in Louisiana and Texas.” Among the evidence leading to this conclusion is Lowery’s note (in Griscom, 1944): “I, too have never been convinced that there is much shifting of populations in the winter. If such was [sic] the case, there would certainly be areas that would be devoid of birds at one season or another. On the contrary I have many colonies in mmd that I visit from time to time through the year, and the populations in these colonies never seem to vary numerically in the slightest.” Nor is there real proof of migration or vagrancy among members of the race sennetti, as Griscom (1944, 1948) has brought out. If these races do make limited migratory movements, they could best be detected through banding studies or by observations of birds moving through or into coastal regions that are not inhabited during the breeding season.

Range: The Louisiana seaside sparrow is resident in coastal marshes from eastern Texas (San Antonio Bay, eastward) east to Alabama (Alabama Port, Dauphin Island) and extreme western Florida (Pensacola). Recorded in winter south to Nueces County, Texas. The Texas seaside sparrow is resident in coastal marshes of southern Texas (Nueces and Copano Bays). Recorded in winter south to the mouth of the Rio Grande.

Egg dates: Alabama: April 22 to June 25 (number of records not stated).

Louisiana: 3 records, May 12 to June 11.

Texas: 22 records, April15 to July 12; 12 records, May 12 to May 25.


Contributed by CHARLES H. TROST

Limited to the salt and brackish marshes within a 10-mile radius of Titusvile, Brevard County, Fla., the dusky seaside sparrow has one of the most restricted ranges of any North American bird. Robert Ridgway described it as a “variety” of the seaside sparrow in 1873 from a specimen sent him from Dummitts Creek, just south of the Haulover Canal between the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. Actually the bird was discovered the year before at Salt Lake, a few miles west of Titusville, by Charles J. Maynard (1881), who thus describes the area and his first encounter with the bird he called most fittingly “the black and white shore finch”:

Near the sources of the St. Johns River in Florida is a little body of water, only about two miles in circumference, called Salt Lake and, as its name implies, is quite brackish. * * * In fact the vegetation which covers these wide-spread plains is almost exactly like that which grows on the marshes of the Indian River. It is composed mainly of coarse grass and a species of rush, both of which grow to a height of four or five feet, and so thickly together that one can scarcely make his way through them. The margin of the lake is, however, destitute of vegetation as are the beds of numerous small creeks which in the spring and summer are dry, and thus form convenient roads.

I was making my way along one of these novel paths on the seventeenth of March, 1872, keeping a sharp lookout for birds, at the same time carefully watching the ground at my feet in order to detect the presence of the venemous water moccasins which were more numerous here than I had ever seen them elsewhere, when my attention was attracted by a little black bird which rose from the high grass about twenty yards from me, hovered a moment, uttering & feeble sputtering song, then dropped down and disappeared. I saw it but a moment, yet I was convinced that it was something that I had never seen before. I laboriously made my way to the spot, but was unable to start it even after the most vigorous efforts. This was my first sight of the new Ammedromus, for I was certain that it belonged to this genus and in a day or two my suspicions were confirmed, for an assistant brought in a specimen which he had taken in the place I had first seen it. We did not find any more near Salt Lake nor did I see a single specimen, but shortly after I found them quite common on the marshes of Indian River. Yet I only took seven specimens there, for the birds are exceedingly difficult to obtain as they are not only very shy, but after once starting will seldom rise a second time, remaining concealed in the thick grass. * * * This species was quite common on the marshes of the Indian River, just below Dummett’s Grove, but I never saw a specimen north of Haulover Canal. They were very abundant on the upper end of Merritt’s Island where I obtained a few.

The birds still occur today about where Maynard reported finding them almost a century ago. A few small colonies persist in brackish marshes bordering the St. Johns west from Tituaville and Indian River City, but the main breeding colonies occupy the salt marshes directly across the Indian River from Titusville along the western shore of the peninsula north of Merritt Island.

Concerning its remarkably restricted range Chapman (1912) commented: “In view of the fact that this species is abundant and that the region it inhabits is in no sense isolated, but that both to the north and south there are marshes apparently similar to those it occupies, the restriction of its range to an area of only a few square miles in extent makes its distribution unique among North American birds.” This is not quite accurate, for the adjoining marshes both to the north and south have extensive growths of black mangrove, Avecennia nitida, which seem to act as a barrier to the duskies. The barrier to the north is not permanent, for it is near the mangrove’s northern limit of growth, and frosts kill the larger shrubs back every 20 to 30 years.

The northern edge of this mangrove growth also marked until a few years ago the southern boundary of the breeding range of the Smyrna seaside sparrow (A. m. pelonota), which led George Sutton (1949) to remark:

“There is, apparently, a definite break between the range of nigrescens and that of pelonota * * * about 30 miles north of Titusville. [Should the mangroves continue to encroach,] pelonota might conceivably drift southward into the range of nigrescens. We could, perhaps, lay no better plan for ascertaining whether nigrescens is a full species. Were the bird not merely a race of Ammospiza maritirna it would, presumably, find its own peculiar niche within the salt marsh habitat and maintain its specific integrity despite inevitable competition with the structurally and ecologically similar intruder.”

That the dusky really merits the specific status the A.O.U. CheckList has always accorded it is questionable. Though its intense black streaking makes it by far the most distinctive of the seaside sparrows, its basic color pattern, habits, and behavior leave no question of its close relationship to the other recognized forms of the seaside complex. Ludlow Griscom (1944) argued: “A. nigrescens (Ridgway) is a small local population in an extreme development of the dark phase. It possesses two absolute characters in the heavy black streaking on a white ground below and the loss of the yellow postocular [sic] stripe. It has, consequently, real claims to specific distinctness. A modern school of thought would unhesitatingly reduce it to subspecific rank, on the indisputable grounds that the differences between any Seaside and any Sharp-tailed Sparrow are the real specific criteria with which Nature has supplied us.”

Unfortunately neither of Griscom’s two “absolute characters” for the dusky’s specificity is valid and he (1944) admitted “that the whiter under parts of mirabilis deprive nigrescens of one of the latter’s absolute characters.” As black streaks occur in several other populations, notably in A. m. juncicola, their presence in nigrescens is not a difference of pattern, but of degree. As for the alleged “loss of the yellow postocular stripe,” the yellow does not extend behind the eye in any seaside population, and that of the preocular, or supraloral, stripe is every bit as well marked in the dusky as it is in all other adult seasides.

Whether or not the dusky’s reproductive isolation has progressed to the point of specificity will probably never be put to the test, as Sutton hoped, by its possible breeding in sympatry with other seasides that might invade its range. Today it is more isolated geographically than it has been since it was discovered. The nearest breeding grounds of pelonota are now 75 miles northward beyond Matanzas Inlet; the nearest peninsulae are 125 westward across Florida on the gulf coast; from Titusville southward to the range of rn’~rabilis beyond Cape Sable lie 250 miles of coastline that offer few suitable marshlands and contain no known breeding seaside sparrows.

Since 1956 the entire breeding range of the dusky on the east side of the Indian River has been impounded for mosquito control purposes by earthen dikes thrown up around the perimeter of the salt marshes, which are now kept covered with from 4 to 12 inches of fresh water. This treatment, though unquestionably superior and preferable to the use of insecticides, is causing marked changes in the salt marsh vegetation. The stands of bunch grass (SpariTha backeri) and black rush (J~incus roernarianus) in which the duskies nest are thinning out and are giving way to cattails (Typha). Over the last few years the dusky population appears to have decreased markedly, especially within the impoundments. I began a special study of the bird in 1961, primarily to discover the causes of its decline so that remedial action might be taken to prevent its extinction. Many of the observations presented here have resulted from this study. For information on the status of the duskies during the several decades preceding the impoundments, I have quoted freely and at some length from notes sent to the editor of the Lije Histories by the late Donald J. Nicholson of Orlando.

Spring: A few birds are present in the marshes all winter, but more seem to appear in late February and early March. The males usually start to sing during the first or second week of March, and at first are heard only in the early morning or at dusk. Their singing increases as the season progresses and soon, especially in calm, cloudy weather, the song may be heard throughout the day. A spring shower increases the males’ ardor and activity tremendously. Nicholson (MS.) thus describes the marshes at such a time:

“Upon entering their habitat one sees individuals on all sides. They seem to appear from nowhere, perch a few moments on the tops of the vegetation, and scold continuously. Here and there males chase the females in zigzag courses, flying low and very swiftly just above the grass tops, sometimes for several hundred yards or more. Others from many directions simultaneously sing their rasping, farcarrying songs from prominent perches atop grass or rush stems. Here and there an exuberant male performs his courtship song flight. Bubbling over with his jerky, rasping, erratic song he flutters slowly almost straight upward to a height of 20 or 30 feet, pauses a moment at the apex, and then, still singing, descends just as slowly to perch in the grass tops again.”

Territory: The dusky tends, as do other seasides, to nest in rather loose colonies. Each male establishes and defends a definite nesting territory, which seems to vary in size according to its location in the marsh. The region immediately around the nest is most exclusive, and only one pair of birds is ever found inhabiting it. Birds in the center of the marsh seem to defend a roughly circular territory about 100 yards in diameter, depending on the vegetation. When the circle includes one of the dikes, where the birds are often seen feeding, the male defends the entire area, including the dike. Birds with nests well back in the marsh are cf ten seen flying 200 yards or more over unsuitable habitat to feeding areas in the tidal zone. The males sometimes sing in such a feeding area, but do not seem to defend it.

The sizes of individual territories seem to have increased in recent years. Nicholson (MS.) states that in the 1930’s he often encountered as many as 20 or 25 sparrows within 100 feet of marsh, and found occupied nests within 40 feet of one another. The birds are certainly not that plentiful today, nor do they nest nearly so close together. Both the thinning of the marsh vegetation and the decrease in population pressure have probably tended to increase territory size.

The male advertises his territory by singing from the tops of the bunch grass or black rush. One male I watched moved about his territory 31 times in an hour and sang an average of 25 seconds at each stop. Intervals between moves ranged from 5 seconds to 4.75 minutes. The advertising is so effective that physical contact is seldom observed between a territorial male and an invader. Once when banded male 733 was feeding on his dike and an unbanded bird flew onto it, he ran at the intruder with wings outspread, feathers ruffled, head back, and bill slightly open. The intruder fled before he was touched, and 733 did not pursue him.

Banding has shown the males return to the same territories year after year. Two males, 703 and 705, that I banded on their territories in 1961, I recaptured defending the same territories the summer of 1963. I have had no returns of adult females in successive years, but fewer were banded originally, and they are harder to observe and to catch than the singing males. Two other males, 711 and 713, and one female, 712, I banded as juveniles the summer of 1962, returned the following year and established territories only some 300 yards from where they were fledged. I have never seen a banded dusky away from the vicinity where I banded it.

The main breeding marsh on the Indian River now contains at least four loose colonies of duskies, each isolated one or two miles from the other by stretches of unsuitable habitat. If no interchange of birds occurs between colonies as the banding data suggest, inbreeding must be the rule rather than the exception. And if inbreeding is as prevalent in other seaside sparrows as it seems to be in the dusky, it is easy to see how so many well-marked forms have developed within the complex.

Courtship: P air formation has never been observed in the dusky, but presumably it occurs shortly after the males start to sing in March. Nicholson (MS.) notes: “In late March the males begin courting the females with their aerial flight songs. Also we see them vigorously pursuing the females low and rapidly just above the tall grass until both drop from sight into it. In all the years I have watched these birds I have never seen them copulate. This probably occurs on the ground hidden in the thick grass after the chase, for the birds usually are not seen for several minutes afterward. Flight chases may be observed throughout the nesting season from April into August, but one sees very few flight songs after mid-June. Perhaps such arduous courting is not needed for the late renestings.”

Nesting: Nicholson (MS.) considered the ideal nesting habitat to be a damp, but not flooded, salt marsh dotted with small open ponds. Formerly the Indian River marshes had dense patches of low, thick salt grass or hay (Distichlis spicata), tangled plots of knee-high pickleweed (Salicornia and Batis), large stretches of waist-high bunch grass (Spartina baciceri), and various-sized stands of the bayonetlike black rush (Juncus roemari anus). In the 1920’s the birds built occasionally in the bunch grass and under blown-over black rush, but he found most nests then in the dense patches of succulent pickleweed, placed usually just below the weed tops and from 10 to 20 inches above the damp ground. The small, neat, open cups were made entirely of dry grass blades and stems with a few dead pickleweed stems mixed in. By the late 1030’s he found the birds nesting almost exclusively in the low salt hay and seldom more than 3 to 5 inches off the ground.

With the flooding the salt hay and pickleweed have now disappeared from the impoundments, and the birds nest today in the high Spartina and Juncus, usually from 5 to 15 inches above the water. One nest I measured was 4 inches high and 5 inches in outside diameter; the inside of its cup was 3 inches wide and 2~ inches deep. Until the young hatch and the parents are actively engaged in feeding them, the nests are very bard to find. They are usually well concealed in thick vegetation, and the incubating female rarely flushes directly from her eggs. Hunting nests in the sharp-tipped Juncus may aptly be termed searching for a ball of hay in a needlestack, and no prudent man attempts it without wearing glasses or goggles to protect his eyes.

Eggs: The eggs of the dusky seaside sparrow are ovate to shortovate, have very little gloss, and are practically indistinguishable from those of A. maritima. The usual set is three or four, and rarely five. The ground color is dirty-white or very pale bluish-white, speckled and spotted with dark reddish browns such as “sorghum brown,” “Mars brown,” “russet,” “chestnut,” or “auburn,” occasionally with underlying spots of “light purplish gray,” which are often lacking. The spottings are usually sharp and distinct, but at times may be somewhat clouded. Generally the eggs are marked profusely with a tendency to concentrate toward the large end, where the spots may be confluent. The measurements of 65 eggs average h9.9 by 15.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 21.6 by 16.2, 20.7 by 16.8, 18.5 by 14:.5, and 19.3 by 14.2.

Nicholson (MS.) claims the eggs of the dusky show larger areas of ground color and vary more in spotting then those of the other seaside sparrows. He notes four the commonest clutch size, five having been found only four times, but three eggs also common, and two fairly frequent, especially late in the season. He reports finding nests with young as early as May 2, and with fresh eggs as late as August 20.

From the dates the eggs are apparently laid in two peaks, the first in late April and early May, the second in late June and early July, and the species appears to be two-brooded.

Incubation: One egg is usually laid per day until the clutch is complete, but the hour of laying is not known. Incubation starts when the last egg is laid and takes between 12 and 13 days. As the male has never been seen sitting on the nest, the female apparently does all the incubating and brooding of the young alone. When she leaves the nest her mate often chases her to the edge of the territory where he stops and sings, though he sometimes accompanies her when she goes to feed in the tidal area outside the dike. When she returns he usually follows her hack to the nest and he sometimes chases her to it.

Young: At hatching the nestlings are pink and show only sparse patches of gray natal down. The egg tooth is shed the second or third day. On the third day the skin has darkened to almost a bluish-gray, but the feather tracts are not obvious until the fourth day. By the sixth day the eyes are open, and on the seventh the feather shafts start to slough off.

The male helps his mate feed the young, which remain in the nest quietly and are not heard crying for food. They normally remain in the nest about nine days, but by the eighth day are apt to bounce from it at the least disturbance. Upon leaving they can fly only a few feet, but they scramble actively about in the vegetation and are very difficult to find. The high-pitched cheeps they utter probably help the old birds find them for feeding. They usually remain on the territory about 20 more days, following their parents and begging for food.

Toward the end of this period the male starts to ignore them, and when a begging juvenile approaches he flies to another perch and continues singing. There is some indication that the male may drive the juveniles out of the territory when renesting begins. During this second nesting period fewer young are seen in the vicinity. On July 30 I collected one bird in juvenal plumage some three miles from the nearest known breeding colony.

Plumage: The juvenal plumage of the dusky seaside is much like that of the other seasides, but the head and back are considerably darker. The lores and bend of wing are huffy, the throat white, the breast and belly an off-white or buff, and a band of tan streaks extends across the breast. The wings, back, and tail are greyish brown. The post-juvenal molt starts in late August, and by November the birds of the year can be distinguished from adults only by a faint tan remainder of the juvenal chest band.

Adults undergo a complete postnuptial molt which starts in August and may continue into October. During this period many tailless birds are in evidence. One adult captured August 24 had the first five primaries new, and new primary coverts only over the new primaries. The fresh feathers are darker and longer than the old ones. I have seen no evidence of any molt in winter or spring. The white and buffy edges of the contour feathers wear off during the winter to produce the very dark nuptial dress.

Food: Howell (1932) states: “Six stomachs of birds of this species were examined * * ~. The food contents consisted largely of insects and spiders, with some vegetable matter. Grasshoppers and crickets composed about 37 percent of the total, and spiders about 25 percent. Other items were beetles, bugs, horse flies, dragon flies, lepidopterous larvae, Hymenoptera, and a praying mantis. The vegetable matter consisted of a few seeds of sedges, one seed of wax myrtle, and a quantity of tubers of a grass or sedge.”

In addition I have seen them feeding on small snails and possibly ants. I saw one female carrying a dragonfly larva and another an adult salt marsh butterfly to their nestings. Except for a few redwinged blackbirds, the salt marshes do not harbor many other insectivorous birds, and the seaside sparrows have little competition for their food.

Behavior: During the nonbreeding season the duskies are quite shy, and either remain concealed in the dense vegetation or fly long before one comes near. In the breeding season they become rather tame. Parents with heavily incubated eggs or young in the nest are very bold and will come to within 15 or 20 feet of an intruder at the nest. They perch on the grass tops and nervously twitch their tail and wings, bob up and down, and scold continuously with their metallic chip-chip, chip-chip until you leave. For a week or so after the young leave the nest the female will come almost within arm’s reach and chip incessantly while trying to lead you away.

After a shower the wet males often sit exposed on the top of the vegetation to fluff and preen their feathers. I watched one such male scratch his head thee times, twice over and once under the wing, after which he stretched the same wing out over the extended foot, downward and behind the body.

Voice: The dusky male usually gives his territorial song from an exposed perch with his head thrown back, bill open, and neck visibly vibrating. Typically the song has one or two short introductory syllables which do not carry far, followed by a longer buzzing note, which Nicholson (MS.) writes toodle-raeeeee. Peterson (1947) calls it “A buzzy cut-a-zheeeeee (like maritima) vaguely suggestive of Florida Red-wing in pattern, but not in quality.”

Howell (1932) writes: “Comparing their song with that of IA. in.] pelonota, which I had been hearing a few days previously, I noted a similarity but some differences. It begins with a single (rarely double) liquid note, followed by a short, buzzing trill. It is not so long nor so loud as the song of the Smyrna Seaside, and the final ‘buzz’ is more pronounced.”

The song varies considerably between birds, and some variation may be evident in the songs of an individual bird. One extreme was a male who always threw back his head and uttered a single, highpitched lisp. Another, whose normal song was the usual e-eedlereeeee, trespassed on a neighboring territory momentarily and sang Tsui-Tsui-tsui-twe-twe-t’we.

The flight song is apparently used only for courting and is seldom heard after mid-June. The bird starts from an exposed perch with a chip-chip-chip, then takes off on fluttering wings and climbs 10 to 20 feet in the air, uttering rapid chips all the way up. Hovering a moment at the crest of his flight, he descends at an angle to another perch, giving two or three very fast renditions of his normal territorial chipereeeee-chipereeee.

I once heard a juvenile give a high-pitched, squeaky call that sounded like Psi-psi-psi-psivee, after which it flew into a bush with an adult, and both proceeded to scold me with the chip-chip alarm note. Females also utter similar squeaky lisps while tending flying juveniles. I heard one female fly from her nest calling tw-tu-tw-twtwi-twi-twi.

Field marks: Peterson (1947) notes: “About size of Seaside Sparrow, but upper parts blackish, and under parts heavily streaked with black. * * * any Seaside Sparrow seen in the Titusville area in summer is this species.” In the fall and winter both northern seaside and sharp-tailed sparrows frequent these marshes. The adult dusky is much darker than any of these, and larger than the sharp-tails. The juvenal dusky is more difficult to distinguish, but it is somewhat darker and should be molting into blacker winter dress when the northern birds arrive. From the Savannah and swamp sparrows which also winter in the salt marshes, the seasides may be told by their low, level, and more fluttery flight.

Enemies: The chief enemy of the dusky seems to be man and his works. Nicholson (MS.) writes that from 1942 to about 1953 the coastal marshes were sprayed from aircraft with insecticides, mainly DDT, to control mosquitoes. By 1957 he estimated this had reduced the dusky population by at least 70 percent. Hickey (1961) points out how especially serious the use of insecticides is to bird species of limited distribution. Not only are food chains disrupted, but reproductive failures often result from slight ingestions of DDT. Considering the dusky’s dependence on insect and animal food and its extremely limited distribution in an area sprayed heavily for mosquito control over a number of years, it is miraculous that any have survived.

The mosquito control impoundments completed in 1956 have already altered or eliminated much of the vegetation in whicb the duskies formerly nested. The gradient of the salt marsh is such that the fresh water in the impoundments is deepest near the tidal area of the Indian River and shallows to damp marsh near the high ground. Consequently the vegetation a quarter to a half mile from the river has been relatively unaltered, except for the encroachment of a few cattail stands. Although the higher marsh looks ideal for nesting, it is some distance from the birds’ usual feeding grounds in the tidal area. Some duskies have moved into this higher portion of the marsh, but the food supply there may not be large enough to support a dense population.

Present in the marshes are a number of natural predators. The rice rat (Ciryzomys palustris) is quite common and builds its ball-like nests in the tall Spartina. The racoon (Procyon lotor) is abundant in the area, and its tracks and trails may be found all through the marshes. Among the commoner snakes are the banded water snake (Na trix sipidor&), the king snake (Lampropeltis getulis), the pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus militarius) , and the water moccasin (Agkistrodor& piseivorus). All of these probably consume some eggs or young, but they have always been there and their depredations have not affected the dusky population measurably in the past. Several duskies have been noted to desert their nests when large black ants, common in the marsh, built their mud nests in the same clump of Spartina.

Possibly more serious may be predation by two new animals that have moved into the marshes since they were freshened. The large pig frogs (Ran a grylio) which are now abundant within the dikes may not be able to catch adult sparrows, but they could certainly capture nestlings. Boat-tailed grackles (Cassidix mexicanus), well known to be fon& of the eggs and young of other birds, are now nesting in bushes on the dikes near the dusky colonies. Should either of these suspicions prove correct, the frogs could be easily eliminated by flooding the impoundments temporarily with salt water, and the gracldes discouraged by cutting down the bushes in which they nest.

Fall and Winter: Sbortly after tbe molt commences in the fall the duskies become very shy and elusive. They no longer respond to a squeak by flying to the top of the grass to watch and scold the intruder. One gets the impression that fewer birds are present in the marshes, which is probably only partially true. Instead of being concentrated in the small nesting colonies, the birds now spread throughout the marshes and remain so through the winter. Perhaps the lower concentration of food available in winter may force them to reduce their density in their habitat. They also disperse to other marshes, both brackish and fresh, up to 20 miles from the breeding grounds. On Sept. 16, 1962, I found an adult in a marsh on Mosquito Lagoon, about 5 miles from the closest colony. Another adult was seen in a fresh water marsh north of Cocoa on Dec. 2S, 1962, during the Christmas census. In a limited sense this might be termed a migration, but dispersal is more fitting.

By late February or early March the birds start to move back into their ancestral breeding colonies, and the cycle begins once more.

Range: The dusky seaside sparrow is resident in salt marshes of eastern Orange and northern Brevard counties, central eastern Florida (Persimmon Hammock on St. Johns River, near Indian River City, and Titusville, Merritt’s Island).

Egg dates: Florida: about 40 records, April 19 to July 23.


Contributed by LOUIS A. STIMSON

All seaside sparrows are noted for their secretiveness, but none has proved more elusive and difficult to find than the Cape Sable sparrow, the last avian species to be discovered on the North American continent. None of the great ornithologists who studied Florida birds in the 19th century, from Audubon to Ridgway and Chapman, even suspected its existence. It is small wonder that when Arthur H. Howell (1919) discovered it on the swampy prairies of Flamingo near Cape Sable in 1918, he considered its presence something of a miracle and named the bird mirabilis. Now, following its extirpation from those prairies by the disastrous hurricane of 1935, and its possible extermination by fire on much of its remaining southwest coast habitat in 1962, we may be gravely concerned about its future.

Howell (1919) recognized the bird’s affinities by calling it the Cape Sable seaside sparrow. The 1957 A.O.U. Check-List accords it full specific standing in its vernacular name, Cape Sable sparrow, as well as in its technical binomial. Many systematicts consider it only a well-marked subspecies of A. maritima; among those who have written me to that effect are 0. L. Austin, Jr., R. A. Paynter, Jr., and C. 0. Sibley. Beecher (1955) lists it subspecifically as A. maritima mirabiis. Griscom (1944) writes: “A. mirabiis (Howell) * * * has no real claim to specific distinction, certainly none of equal weight with those of reigrescers.” After discussing the various differences he adds: “These are all differences of degree, none are absolute. Indeed it could be argued that the whiter underparts of mirabiis deprive rugrescens of one of the latter’s absolute characters.”

Although I am not a systematist, it seems to me that the differences in color between mirabiis and the races of maritirna, or even between murabilis and nigrescens, are no greater than, for instance, those between certain races of the song sparrow or of the rufous-sided towhee. The similarities between mirabiis, nigrescens, and the maritima subspecies in song, nesting habits, and other behavior are striking, and the differences very slight. The present complete isolation of the mirabilis population from all other seaside sparrows in Florida can be explained by recent geological events (Stimson, 1956). However, the A.O.U. Check-List still considers it a full species, and until the Check-List Committee rules otherwise, we will have to abide by that decision.

The Cape Sable sparrow’s only known remaining habitat today is the marshes lying a few miles inland behind the southwest coast of Florida northwest of Cape Sable. Along this coast inland from the Gulf of Mexico first lies a belt of mangroves, commonly called the mangrove fringe, from 2 to 17 miles wide and cut by streams, inland bays, and a few salt marshes. Some of these marshes look from the air as though they might be suitable seaside sparrow habitat, but few have been investigated on the ground. Over the centuries this fringe has acted as a buffer, protecting the adjoining marshes farther inland from the destructive fury of the hurricanes that periodically sweep the coast. The marshes at Cape Sable lack such protection.

Inland from the mangrove fringe is a belt of marshes from V2 to 3 miles or so in width. These marshes vary from salt through brackish to fresh, and contain extensive stretches of cord grass (Spartina sp.), which seems to be one of the Cape Sable sparrow’s preferred habitats. Bordering the marshes landward are cypress swamps, or strands, and some pine woods interspersed with wet prairie, usually fresh and dry during droughts. From the Lostmans Pine Islands area southeastward to Broad River and the Shark River Valley, the forest border is absent and the marshes merge directly into the marsh prairie of the southern Everglades. It was here that the surprising discovery was made, only a decade ago, of Cape Sable sparrows breeding in a fresh water saw-grass (Mariscus) habitat (Stimson, 1956, 1961).

Subsequent investigations have shown the entire population of the species today to be scattered in small colonies in the narrow belt of fresh and brackish marshes from the Shark River basin northwestward some 40 miles to the Ochopee: Everglades City area. Before the Tamiami Trail was opened in 1928, this region was truly a wilderness and extremely difficult to reach. The highway now traverses parts of the inland marsh between the mangroves and the cypress from Royal Palm Hammock in Coffier-Seminole State Park to Ochopee, and has opened up the adjoining land to humans, somewhat to the detriment of the birds. Swamp-buggies and air-boats now give deeper access into it, but for a man on foot the area is still difficult to penetrate.

Territory: In the coastal marshes at Cape Sable, Howell (1932) found “the birds occur rather sparingly in small, more or less isolated colonies.” This pattern the birds still adhere to in their present range. Over the years from 1943 to date I have often found from 10 to 16 singing males in areas of a quarter to a half a square mile. On Apr. 26, 1959, 0. L. Austin, Jr., searched the Ochopee marsh and wrote me: “I found a thriving little colony and spent most of the day studying it. I counted 19 birds, most of them in pairs, and apparently established on territories from 100 to 300 yards apart. I estimated at least 9 or 10 pairs in that perhaps square mile of marsh.” Aside from singing to advertise their occupancy, I have never observed any defense of territory, nor have I found any mention of it in the published accounts.

Nesting: H. H. Bailey (1925) describes the first nest of the Cape Sable sparrow he found May 12, 1921, as “composed of dry salt marsh grass, and lined with very fine grasses, attached to some upright marsh grass waist-high and growing in a brackish swale, and completely covered with matted-down dead marsh grass.” The second known nest, according to Howell (1932) was taken by E. J. Court on Mar. 29, 1925. It contained five fresh eggs and was situated on the ground at the base of a clump of grass. The third man to find nests and eggs of this species was D. J. Nicholson (1928) who thus describes his experiences near Cape Sable on Apr. 10 and 13, 1927:

Coming to several scattered bunches of switch-grass [Spartina] near a shallow pond, I thought I would give it a search and in a few minutes was staring down upon my first set of four eggs of this very rare sparrow.

There was no bird in sight nor did I see one leave the nest, and there was no indication that sparrows owned this nest, so quiet and indifferent were the birds. I left the nest for fifteen minutes and returning flushed her off the nest at ten feet. She flew directly from the nest and perched on top of the grass fifteen feet away giving a weak chirp and no other sound. Soon she disappesrcd seeming indifferent to the fatc of her nest.

This nest was situated sixteen inches above the ground in switch-grass, about midway; and made of (lead grass lined with finer blades of grass neatly cupped. Over the top of nest enough grass was placed to conceal it, though it could not be strictly called an arched nest. It gave the impression of a nest just begun. * * *

Again on April 13, 1927, * * * I found three nests * * * . The first nest was built in the short salt-grass [Selicorniel several inches above the ground, built of the same material, lined with fine grasses. It was only found by accidentally parting the grass and contained three young about two days old. The parents were quite solicitous, scolding with a loud chipping note, accompanied by jerks of the tail. * * * A second nest was located by observing the parent fly into a dense clump of switch-grass three different times. Twice I searched well but could not find a nest, but the third time was rewarded by finding the nest with three young of the same age as found in the other nest. A deserted nest that had been occupied earlier in the season was found several inches above the ground in [s] dense patch of salt: grass.

Eggs: The Cape Sable sparrow lays three to five ovate and slightly glossy eggs, very similar to those of the other seaside sparrows. The ground color is greenish-white to grayish white, speckled and spotted wit,b such reddish browns as “Mars brown,” “Prout’s brown,” or “auburn.” The three sets in the American Museum of Natural History in New York are grayish-white with spotting well scattered over the entire surface with only a slight concentration toward the large end. Some eggs have uridermarkings of “pale purplish gray.” ‘rhe measurements of 15 eggs average 19.9 by 15.1 millimeters; those showing the four extremes measure 20.6 by 16.6,18.3 by 14.5, and 20.3 by 13.9 millimeters.

Howell (1932) states: “The five eggs collected by Court are pale bluish white, heavily and rather evenly spotted with different sized spots of verona brown and lavender gray. They are very similar to certain eggs of the Smyrna Seaside, but the ground color is more bluish, and the eggs are less pointed than the average egg of that race.”

The earliest nesting date known is indicated by J. C. Howell, Jr. (1937), who writes: “On March 30, 1934, near Flamingo in Monroe County, Florida, Messrs. J. Adger Smyth, D. S. Riggs, an(l the writer observed a young Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow * * * This bird had not been out of the nest more than a day or two. The set of eggs from which this youngster hatched must have been deposited (luring the first week in March.”

Plumage: Nothing is known of the incubation period in this species, and though several observers have reported seeing young in the nest, no description of the nestlings exists in the literature. Apparently Ihe only juvenal specimen in existence is one I collected June 29, 1952, for the U.S. National Museum. Concerning this bird 0. L. Austin, ,ir., writes mc: “John Aldrich and I just examined together the juvenile you collected. Compared with February and April adults, the upper parts of the young bird lack their distinctive greenish-gray cast. The back feathers have heavier blackish-brown centers edged with huffy-white. The yellow of the lores and the wing edging is also replaced with huffy-white. The entire underparts are suffused with pale yellow; the breast streaks are smaller, more brownish, and less continuous than in the adult plumage. We cannot see any ‘pinkish yellow’ as you report [in Sprunt, 19541, nor would we call the bird any ‘lighter’; if anything it is browner.” The pinkish tinge I thought I saw in the field could well have been caused by early morning light effects, which only emphasizes the value of a specimen.

Food: The only information on the food of this species is that of Howell (1932): “Stomachs of 15 specimens of this species have been examined in the Biological Survey; the food consisted almost wholly of insects and spiders, with a few small amphipods and mollusks, and about 3 percent of vegetable debris. Beetles of many species composed the largest single item, and spiders were next in importance. Other insects taken were dragon-fly nymphs, moths and their larvae, bugs, parasitic wasps, flies, crickets, and locusts.”

Behavior: In my experience and from what little has been written about it, the general behavior of the Cape Sable sparrow differs very little if at all from that of its close relatives. Howell (1932) remarks: “Like the other species of Seaside Sparrows, they are very shy and secretive, spending most of their time on or near the ground, concealed in the vegetation. * * * During the breeding season, late in March and April, the birds flush rather easily from the tall grass, flying with a steady flight for a distance of 100 to 200 yards before dropping into the grass again. They usually run as soon as they alight and are hard to flush a second time.” Sometimes they fly considerably farther; one bird I flushed from its singing perch flew in a large half circle for almost half a mile before dropping into the grass.

During the summer I find that the adults, and particularly the young, may be called out of cover by “squeaking.” The birds are most easily observed when the males are singing, which may be any time from January to August. J. C. howell, Jr., in a letter to A. H. Howell, heard “some singing December 26, 1933, 5 miles west of Flamingo.” S. A. Grimes wrote Inc Nov. 20, 1953, saying: “When Roy Hailman, Wayland Shannon and I were at Cape Sable in January, 1932, we found the Cape Sable sparrow quite common and in full song.” I have heard the birds singing in the Ochopee marshes as early as March 15 and as late as August 4.

To me the birds seem quite temperamental and sensitive to weather conditions. Although I have beard them sing at all times of the day, they sing more frequently early in the morning and late in the afternoon. ‘When I discovered the Ochopee colony on Apr. 3, 1953, the birds were singing freely early in the morning. The next day I returned at 1:00 p.m. with two companions, and though we searched diligently for an hour and a half, we could not find or flush a single sparrow. Returning at 5:00 p.m., we soon saw two singing males and heard others in the distance. W. B. Robertson, Jr., writes me that “on 16 May 1960 at Ochopee two birds sang until well past sundown.”

A rising wind will often cause the birds to stop singing. The heat of midday also seems to be a deterrent. On the other hand, a cloud passing over the sun or the cooling effect of a sudden shower will sometimes cause the birds, silent until then, to pop out of the grass and sing.

Voice: The Cape Sable sparrow has a number of short call or alarm notes which it utters throughout the year. The most common sounds to me like zup-zup-zup; another is a high-pitched, twittering zee-zeezee. Best known, however, is the territorial song of the male which he usually gives from a perch on or near the top of a grass stem. Both Howell (1932) and Sutton (in Holt and Sutton, 1926) speak of hearing the song “coming apparently from well down in the thick marsh grass,” but this is contrary to my own experience and those of other recent observers. W. B. Robertson, Jr., writes me: “All I have seen on four trips to Ochopee sang from conspicuous perches near the top of a tall stem.”

Howell (1932) states that “The ordinary song resembles that of the other Seaside Sparrows, but seems to be simpler in character. I wrote it at the time churr-buz-z-z-z, the last syllable accented and prolonged. In this buzzing character it most resembled the song of the Dusky Seaside (nigrescens).” Sutton (in bIt and Sutton, 1926) transliterates it as “d’le, d’le, d’le.” To me the song sounds like churr-eee-e-e-e. The final buzzing note may be heard for some distance, a quarter mile or so, and unless one is close enough to hear the rest of the song it may easily be confused with the e-e-e-e note of the redwinged blackbird or the call of one of the marsh frogs. When one is extremely close to a singing bird, the song is preceded by two or more noticeable guttural clicks. I have heard these same clicks from the dusky seaside sparrow.

Compared to the songs of other seaside sparrows, that of mirabilis seems to me most like that of nigrescens, but not quite as strongly buzzing. W. B. Robertson, Jr., contributes: “H. Teter and I listened to two sing at Ochopee for perhaps 45 minutes on 16 May 1960. We were close enough to hear the introductory clicks distinctly. We were impressed by the similarity to the song of the Dusky which we had heard the day before near Titusville.” The song of A. m. maritirna seemed somewhat similar as I heard it in marshes near Holgate, N. J. The song of A. m. macgilhivraii near Charleston, S.C., seemed to me decidedly weaker, in fact a rather poor effort. I have heard juncicola andfisheri only once each and can make no comparison. As I listened to the song of A. m. senmetti at Copano Bay near Rockport, Tex., it seemed very similar, but appeared to have an extra syllable, which I wrote churr-ur-eee-e-e-e.

The Cape Sable sparrow also has a flight song which I have often heard. Howell (1932) describes it as “of longer duration and * * * preceded by a sort of twittering chirrup.” My observations have been that the bird springs into the air, gives several rather excited twittering notes in flight, then returns to a grass-top perch and gives the regular song, churr-eee-e-e-e.

Field marks: Howell (1932) describes the bird as: “About the size of Scott’s Seaside, upperparts more greenish and underparts more whitish than in any of the races of maritima; hind neck and back yellowish olive, streaked with fuscous; scapulars edged with white; tail fuscous, edged with citrine drab (olive drab); lores yellow; wings fuscous, edged with olive; edge of wings yellow; underparts white, moderately streaked on breast and sides with fuscous or mouse gray.”

As no other seaside sparrow has been taken within 150 miles of the Cape Sable’s range, the species with which the Cape Sable is most likely to be confused is the sharp-tailed sparrow, which has an identical flight pattern and is only slightly smaller and browner. The Savannah sparrow, swamp sparrow, and grasshopper sparrow also occur commonly in the same marshes during the fall, winter and spring.

For positive field or sight identification I prefer to see a singing bird. The Cape Sable’s habit in winter of dropping immediately back into the grass on being flushed makes it extremely hard to identify by sight. Unless the bird flushes very close with the sun shining directly on its back making the greenish cast plainly visible, I simply refuse to identify it as a Cape Sable sparrow.

The difficulty of identifying Cape Sables by sight in winter is attested by the many sight records of the species reported from the Cape Sable marshes since the 1935 hurricane. That these reports were based on misidentifications is strongly suggested by the fact that no Cape Sable sparrow has been reported from that area since then during the period from May 15 to August 1, when no other sparrow would be present and the Cape Sable, if present, would be in song and easily found and recognized.

Enemies: Although a number of natural enemies of ground-nesting birds are plentiful in its habitat: raccoons and several species of snakes for instance, which surely destroy some eggs and nestlings: no preying on the Cape Sable sparrow has been reported. Its chief foes today are hurricanes, droughts, fires, and man’s alterations of its habitat, chiefly by drainage.

Hurricanes have been striking southern Florida periodically in the late summer and fall for centuries. Their high winds and flood tides can be extremely destructive. to any bird life in their path, as the report of W. B. Robertson, Jr. (1961) on the 1960 hurricane Donna shows. When the rising waters drive the sparrows from their marsh habitat during daylight., the birds have a good chance of reaching and riding out the blow in the protection of vegetation on higher land. This the Cape Sable birds doubtless did during the 1926 hurricane, the center of which passed over Miami, and during a less severe one that passed over Cape Sable by day in 1929. Howell (1932) quotes a letter from J. B. Semple dated Jan. 3,1030: “The Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow is still in its old haunts in the long grass, notwithstanding that last October five feet of salt water driven by a wind of about 100 miles per hour, passed over the entire range of this little bird.”

The birds were not so fortunate when the hurricane of Sept. 2,1935, one of the most violent storms on record in the western hemisphere, bit Cape Sable. That hurricane struck at night, and the sudden wall of water at least S feet deep it drove before it must have caught the birds asleep with their toes locked around their grass stem perches. As I (1956) explained elsewhere: “It seems incredible that any small sparrow could have escaped alive. If any sparrow did manage to get into the air when that eight foot wave struck, it would have been blown to sea towards the center of the storm and would have dropped from exhaustion into the waters of the Gulf * * *ï To my knowledge no reliable reports have ever come from that part of the coast of the presence of this species since the storm.” And to this day the birds have failed to move back into the area where Howell first found them, which is now completely under the jurisdiction and protection of Everglades National Park.

Most if not all their present range was completely inundated by the floods accompanying hurricane Donna in 1960. Donna passed Cape Sable at daybreak on September 10. Her center proceeded northeastward along the coast and struck Ochopee and Everglades City about noon, ravaging vegetation and damaging property. Yet the birds managed to escape her effects somewhere nearby, because I found them in several places along the Ochopee marshes in 1961 and 1962.

Fires, whether started by man or lightning, are a serious if not a catastrophic threat to the species, as Sutton (in Holt and Sutton, 1926) noted long ago: “However, it is well to mention the constant danger of extermination of this colony by fire. * * * ~~ is quite possible that the whole area might be devastated by a single blaze.” I (1961) described the destruction by fire of colonies in the Lostmans Pine Islands section in 1957 and in the Ochopee marsh in May 1959. 0. L. Austin, Jr., also mentions the Ochopee fire in his previously quoted letter which continues: “Five weeks later, 6 June 1959, I stopped to check on the colony. I was horrified to find the marsh where the birds were had been burned flat, probably several weeks previously. I spent the rest of the day tramping all the unburned marsh I could find in the vicinity, but could not flush a single sparrow.”

In May 1962, following the most prolonged and severe drought in recent history, a number of fires broke out in southern Florida. Two that started at almost the same time, one near Cooperstown on the Tamiami Trail, the other in the Lostmans Pine Island area, eventually joined and together burned 77,000 acres within Everglades National Park and some 107,000 acres more outside its borders. They covered much of the territory inhabited by the Cape Sable sparrows, including the area of greatest concentration bordering the Shark River Valley. It would indeed have been a miracle for any sparrow in the path of those fires to have escaped.

However, the fires did miss a tract of about 23,000 acres lying mainly north, west, and southwest of the water gauge (see map, Stimson, 1956). I have found Cape Sable sparrows at several points on the perimeter of this unburned section in years past, but I have never been able to penetrate its interior. This area, together with a few small spots toward Ochopee, may now remain the only possible reservoir for the future perpetuation of the species.

On July 21, 1962, W. G. Atwater and I investigated the marsh at the foot of the Barnes Strand where I had found Cape Sable sparrows on Apr. 16, 1955. The day was ideal for our purpose, but though we reached and had crisscrossed the marsh in ankle- and knee-deep water a number of times before 10:00 a.m., we could not find a single sparrow. We did find clear evidence that the entire marsh had been burned, probably prior to 1962.

A prolonged diought such as occurred from 1961 to June 1962, cannot help but having in itself a decimating effect on the sparrows. The complete dehydration of the land must destroy insect and other invertebrate food of the seaside sparrows that depends on moisture for its existence. On May 30, 1962, I visited the colony where I took the 1952 specimen, and where I could always find at least 10 singing males. Although the area fortunately had not been burned, I could find only three singing males. Three weeks later, on June 20, 1962, II. M. Stevenson and I hunted the same place for more than an hour without finding a bird, though the weather conditions were ideal that morning. At another colony, although a few males were singing, we both thought the actions of the birds suggested they had not nested, even at that late date.

Recently, in the Ochopee area, another threat to the species has developed. Real estate developers have put drag-line dredges and bulldozers to work. They have dredged small lakes out of the marsh and used the fill thus obtained to level up building lots at the very edge of the marshes inhabited by the sparrows. Another drag-line is currently at work in the marsh behind the village. A carelessly thrown cigarette could start a blaze that might destroy all the sparrow colonies from the Immokalee road to the Turner River.

Surely the preceding few paragraphs justify the “grave concern” expressed at the start of this life history. However, with water conservation work now in progress in the Everglades to counteract the effects of drainage over the past 40 years, the Cape Sable sparrow’s habitat may yet in time revert to something near its condition in predrainage days. I, for one, pray that the future will disprove my present fear for the continued existence of this species.

Range: The Cape Sable sparrow is resident in southwestern Florida from the Ochopee Marshes near Everglades southeast toward the headwaters of Iluston River and the mouth of Gum Slough to the Shark River Basin; formerly to Cape Sable.

Egg dates: Florida: 3 records, March 29 to May 21.

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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