Sage Sparrow

Amphispiza belli

(c) Ron Wolf
  • EMBERIZINAE
  • Sparrows, Buntings, Towhees, Longspurs
  • Passeriformes
  • Zacatonero de Artemisa
  • Bruant de Bell
Introduction

A widespread songbird of the shrub-steppe habitats of the American West, the Sage Sparrow faces threats on its Great Basin breeding grounds and on its year-round territory along the California coast. The fragmentation and degradation of Great Basin sagebrush habitat can render it unsuitable for Sage Sparrow breeding, while the destruction of coastal chaparral in California threatens the unique form of the species found there. The population of San Clemente Sage Sparrow, a distinct form found only on one island off the coast of California, was threatened with extinction, but is now stabilizing as a result of an Endangered Species Act Recovery Plan.

Appearance Description

Sage Sparrows are handsome, medium-sized songbirds. On average, the Sage Sparrow measures 6 inches long with a 5.25-inch wingspan and weighs about .56 ounces. They have gray heads, and a distinctive facial pattern that includes a bold white eye ring, a white spot in front of the eye, and a broad, white submoustachial stripe that is separated from the white throat by a black stripe. The lower parts are mostly white, with a dark central breast spot. Overall, the upperparts are brownish grey with subtle streaks. When perched, it often bobs its tail up and down like an Eastern Phoebe.

Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution

Sage Sparrows breed in the Great Basin area of the western United States, ranging as far east as Wyoming and as far north as Washington. The species also breeds throughout California, both along the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and along much of the coast, and in coastal areas of northern and central Baja California. An endangered form of Sage Sparrow is found only on San Clemente Island, off the coast of southern California.

Numerous Important Bird Areas (IBAs) provide habitat for Sage Sparrow, including Washington's Fitzner-Eberhardt Arid Lands Ecology Reserve IBA (home to up to 200 birds), and California's Vandenberg Air Force Base IBA (host to 325 breeding pairs), San Clemente Island IBA, and San Diego National Wildlife Refuge IBA (home to one of the largest contiguous blocks of coastal sage scrub-breeding birds in the world).

Habitat

The Sage Sparrow breeds in sagebrush over 90% of the time and is therefore considered an "obligate" species; that is to say, the Sage Sparrow is obliged to breed in this habitat type. It breeds in large patches brush, with a minimum requirement of about 320 acres of continuous habitat. Stands of other low desert scrub are sometimes used: bitterbrush, chamise chaparral, creosote bush, rabbit bush, saltbush, and shadscale. A mixture of bare ground and herbaceous plants appears to be an important component. Wintering birds use various semi-arid landscapes dominated by cactus, creosote bush, short native grasses, honey mesquite, and sagebrush.

Feeding

The Sage Sparrow forages mostly on the ground by sight, plucking items from vegetation or gleaning them from the ground. The season and yearly rainfall patterns dictate the diet of this opportunistic species. The summer diet is omnivorous but favors insects: the larvae of beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, and moths as well as many adult insects, spiders, leafhoppers, and ants. Seeds are important year round, including grass, pigweed, and wild mustard.

Reproduction

Unlike most songbirds, Sage Sparrows often arrive on their breeding grounds already paired. The Bell's Sage Sparrow remains paired year round, but not necessarily with the same partner.
To defend its territory, the male Sage Sparrow sings from atop a shrub, twitching its tails as it sings. Fights, chases, and displays are also used to exclude others. Nesting occurs from March to July, with 1-3 clutches produce per year. The nest is usually set in a low shrub a few feet off the ground but is sometimes in a depression on the ground or a clump of grasses. As the male defends the site, the female builds a small cup with twigs and thick grasses and lines it with finer plant materials, then finally with feathers, fur, and hair.

Typical clutch size is three or four eggs, colored light blue, splotched and dotted with shades of brown. The female incubates them for about two weeks. The orangish yellow chicks are mostly naked, blind, and defenseless. Both parents probably feed small insects to the young, which leave the nest after about ten days. The chicks' fecal sacs are carried at least 45 feet from the nest, as a defense against predators, which include Townsend's ground squirrel and Common Raven. Juvenile Sage Sparrows form flocks before joining adults for migration.

Migration

The coastal populations of Sage Sparrow are non-migratory, as are birds found breeding across the southern parts of California, Nevada, and Utah. Birds in the northern part of the species' breeding range are short-distance migrants, spending the winter in Arizona, New Mexico, west Texas, southern California, and northern Mexico. Spring migrants arrive on the breeding grounds between March and early April. In the fall, small flocks of Sage Sparrows first move to short distances to molt and forage, before migrating south in September.

  • 4,300,000
  • unknown
  • Subspecies Endangered
Population Status Trends

Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data from across the Sage Sparrow's range suggest a decline between 1966 and 1980, and stable between 1980 and 2006. However, there are too few BBS routes in the western United States to adequately assess this trend or to make long-term assessments. Analysis of Christmas Bird Count data suggest a decline from 1966 to 2006 during the non-breeding season.

Conservation Issues

The Sage Sparrow's preferred ecosystem is sometimes called the sagebrush sea. This sea is being "drained" by exotic species (cheat grass, medusahead, and Russian thistle or "tumbleweed") and native, but invasive trees (pinyon and juniper). Accidentally released in the late 19th Century, cheat grass continues to over- run native habitats and intensify wildfires, from which sagebrush cannot recover. In 1991, the Bureau of Land Management surveyed 400,000 acres in Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington and found 70,000 acres dominated or significantly infested by non-native grasses. At the heart of the Sage Sparrow's breeding range, 80% of the Great Basin's brush lands were estimated in a 2004 survey to be at risk for cheat grass infestation. In 2005, Colorado estimated that 99% of the sagebrush used by its Sage Sparrows was at risk. When cheatgrass alters the landscape, Sage Sparrows abandon traditional breeding sites. Habitat loss or fragmentation due to development, agriculture, and roads can also reduce sparrow populations. These processes also help to spread noxious grasses.

Intensive natural gas extraction in sagebrush steppe may also negatively impact Sage Sparrow reproductive success, as well as that of several other sage-dependent species. Studies are under way to determine the effects of this issue of significant conservation concern.

The Sage Sparrow has conservation status in California (Species of Special Concern or SSC), Colorado (SSC), Nevada (Conservation Priority), Oregon (Sensitive/Critical), and Washington (SSC). Efforts in these and other states to preserve western brush lands for other species, like the Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and the California Gnatcatcher, may benefit this sparrow. The Western Working Group of Partners in Flight has developed conservation management strategies for grasslands and shrub-steppe, with brochures and specific recommendations for public and private land managers. In 1977, the San Clemente Sage Sparrow was listed as Threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), under the Endangered Species Act. The introduction of pigs, goats, and other grazing animals to San Clemente Island wreaked havoc on the island's native plant life and threatened the existence of the San Clemente Sage Sparrow. USFWS developed a recovery plan for the sparrow in 1984 and focused on the removal of introduced animals to San Clemente Island. In 1992, the last feral pigs and g

What You Can Do

If you own or use land inhabited by the Sage Sparrow, consider the best manage practices recommended by the State of Wyoming: "Keeping Birds in the Sagebrush Sea".

Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Sage Sparrow as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas programs in California and other states where the species occurs and how you can help.


Listing of the San Clemente Sage Sparrow under the Endangered Species Act has made it possible to learn critical information about the biology of the species. Audubon continues to work to ensure that this vital legislation is being used to protect our publicly-owned wildlife resources. Check out www.audubon.org/campaign/ to learn of the latest news about the Endangered Species Act and how you can help. To learn more about other species protected under this legislation.

Find out about actions you can take including Audubon programs and activities.

More Information

Learn more about this species and other birds through these resources

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Natural History References

Boyle, S. A. and D. R. Reeder. 2005. "Sage Sparrow Amphispiza belli," Colorado sagebrush: a conservation assessment and strategy. Grand Junction: Colorado Division of Wildlife, pages A-63 to A-71.

Martin, J. W. and B. A. Carlson. 1998. Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza nevadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 326 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Rising, J. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

Conservation Status References

Boyle, S. A. and D. R. Reeder. 2005. "Sage Sparrow Amphispiza belli," Colorado sagebrush: a conservation assessment and strategy. Grand Junction: Colorado Division of Wildlife, pages A-63 to A-71.

Connelly, J. W., S. T. Knick, M. A. Schroeder, and S. J. Stiver. 2004. Conservation Assessment
of Greater Sage-grouse and Sagebrush Habitats. Western Association of Fish and
Wildlife Agencies. Unpublished Report. Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Martin, J. W. and B. A. Carlson. 1998. Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza nevadensis). In The Birds of North America, No. 326 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.

Rising, J. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, San Diego, CA.

"San Clemente Sage Sparrow." Version 02. May 2002. Institute for Wildlife Studies. P.O. Box 1104 Arcata, CA 95518. Accessed 11 June 2007.