Lincoln's Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii

(c) Glen Tepke
  • EMBERIZINAE
  • Sparrows, Buntings, Towhees, Longspurs
  • Passeriformes
  • Sabanero de Lincoln; Gorriòn de Lincoln
  • Bruant de Lincoln
Introduction
A delicate version of the familiar Song Sparrow, the Lincoln's Sparrow prefers boreal bogs in summer and dense weeds during migration. Its reclusive behavior and remote breeding sites make it difficult to observe. John James Audubon named this small songbird for Thomas Lincoln, who accompanied him on his trip to Labrador in 1833 and collected the first specimen.
(c) Pete Cambi
Appearance Description
The Lincoln’s Sparrow’s plumage is clean and pretty. This species resembles a Song Sparrow, but is smaller and more delicately built. The sexes show no noticeable differences in plumage. The face is mostly gray under the reddish-brown crown stripes. The upper parts are distinctly streaked with dark brown and gray. The chest is neatly streaked with dark brown over a light orange-yellow wash. This buff color also curves from the base of the bill down and around the gray face. The small bill is also grayish. With a 7.5 inch wingspan, the Lincoln’s Sparrow weighs .6 ounces and grows up to 5.75 inches long.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
At various times of the year, the Lincoln’s Sparrow occurs across most of North America. Its breeding range extends from southern Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes, and then southward through the Rocky Mountains into Arizona. In North America, Lincoln’s Sparrows winter from the West Coast southward through Texas and then eastward to the southern Atlantic Coast. They can also winter as far south as Panama.
 
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
Habitat
Lincoln’s Sparrows need dense brushy habitat next to wetlands. They prefer northern bogs of the boreal forest and willow thickets in more mountainous terrain. Migrating and wintering birds use a variety of thickets and dense weedy patches.
Feeding
Foraging under dense cover, the Lincoln’s Sparrow mostly walks and scratches to find insects and spiders during breeding. When moths are abundant, these sparrows capture them in flight. During winter and migration, grass and weed seeds are essential for Lincoln’s Sparrows. These birds sometimes visit feeders.
 
Reproduction
Because of the remoteness and density of their habitat, much of the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s behavior has yet to be observed. They appear to be monogamous. Males defend their territory with a lively, liquid series of trilled notes, not unlike the song of a wren. Using grasses and sometimes mammal hairs, females build their nests upon mosses. Usually, the female begins the mating routine during nest construction. She lays 3 to 5 eggs, of variable color and speckling. The eggs hatch in approximately 11 days, and chicks fledge 11 days later.
 
The pair defends the nest with alarm calls, and the female distracts intruders by running with her wings held tight and her head low, like a mouse. Late in the nesting cycle, wing flapping and noisy rustling in the underbrush are added to the display. At this time, Lincoln’s Sparrows often cooperate in their mutual defense. Usually, a pair produces one clutch.
Migration
From mid-April through May, Lincoln’s Sparrows migrate at night, but the details of their migration patterns and behaviors are not fully known. They are much more numerous on the east coast in the fall than in the spring; migratory traffic has been similar at spots monitored in the west.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 39,000,000
  • 39,000,000
  • population expanding, no conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
Breeding Bird Surveys indicate losses for Lincoln’s Sparrows in former strongholds, like northern Quebec. In recent years, boreal songbirds like the Olive-sided Flycatcher have experienced severe population declines for reasons not yet fully understood; the Lincoln’s Sparrow, which shares their haunts may soon show similar declines. Where wetlands have been created, Lincoln’s Sparrows may establish new breeding territories.
 
An explanation of the Annual Population Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
In Canada, Lincoln’s Sparrows have been adversely affected by logging. Herbicide spraying, clear-cutting, and fire suppression limit the plant diversity and thickets favored by the sparrows. In response to the increased pressure on boreal forests, a group of American and Canadian conservation organizations have jointly launched the Boreal Songbird Initiative and The Boreal Forest Initiative to shape policy, mobilize conservation efforts, and educate the public. Since approximately 89% of Lincoln’s Sparrows breed in the boreal forests, these initiatives are vital to its future.
 
In the American Rocky Mountains, Lincoln’s Sparrows often abandon their nests in response to human intrusion. Where cattle graze along streams and rivers, nest sites are fewer and predators can more easily reach them. Modification of grazing practices and restrictions on recreational use within key nesting sites may help increase sparrow populations.
What You Can Do
Look for Lincoln’s Sparrows as they migrate through your local patch of weeds and brush.
 
When hiking in the American Rockies, respect the Lincoln’s Sparrow’s habitat during the breeding season.
 
Lincoln’s Sparrows use thick, low brush and weedy fields during migration and winter. Support farming practices that allow vegetation to grow after a harvest, and that allow some fields to lie fallow for a season.
 
The logging of boreal forests is driven by consumer demand for paper. Buy paper products high in recycled content, and remove your name from unwanted mailing lists by contacting the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service.
 
Visit the Boreal Songbird Initiative website to learn more about helping the Lincoln’s Sparrow.
 
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Ammon, Elisabeth M., and Peter B. Stacey. “Avian Nest Success in Relation to Past Grazing Regimes in a Montane Riparian System.” Condor, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Feb., 1997) pp. 7-13.
 
Ammon, E. M. 1995. Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). In The Birds of North America, No. 191 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Hannon, Susan and Pierre Drapeau. “Bird Responses to Burns and Clear Cuts in the Boreal Forest of Canada.” Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas: Proceedings of the Third International Partners in Flight Conference. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191. 2005. pp. 1104-1106:
 
MacKinnon, D. S., and B. Freedman. “Effects of Silvicultural Use of the Herbicide Glyphosate on Breeding Birds of Regenerating Clearcuts in Nova Scotia, Canada.” Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1993) pp. 395-406.
 
Rising, J.D. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press. San Diego, London, New York, Boston, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Conservation Status References
Ammon, Elisabeth M., and Peter B. Stacey. “Avian Nest Success in Relation to Past Grazing Regimes in a Montane Riparian System.” Condor, Vol. 99, No. 1 (Feb., 1997) pp. 7-13.
 
Ammon, E. M. 1995. Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii). In The Birds of North America, No. 191 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and The American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.
 
Hannon, Susan and Pierre Drapeau. “Bird Responses to Burns and Clear Cuts in the Boreal Forest of Canada.” Bird Conservation Implementation and Integration in the Americas: Proceedings of the Third International Partners in Flight Conference. USDA Forest Service Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-191. 2005. pp. 1104-1106:
 
MacKinnon, D. S., and B. Freedman. “Effects of Silvicultural Use of the Herbicide Glyphosate on Breeding Birds of Regenerating Clearcuts in Nova Scotia, Canada.” Journal of Applied Ecology, Vol. 30, No. 3 (1993) pp. 395-406.
 
Rising, J.D. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press. San Diego, London, New York, Boston, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto.
 
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.