The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are medium-sized sparrows found in North America.
Within their large range, they may very well be one of the most abundant bird species.
They were named for the male’s melodious and fairly complex song – used to attract females and to declare ownership of territories.
Distribution / Range
Song Sparrows occur naturally across most of Canada and the United States.
Northern populations migrate south to southern United States or Mexico for the winter. Southern birds are often sedentary (non-migratory).
Vagrants have been reported in Western Europe, Great Britain and Norway.
Numerous subspecies have been identified that have been grouped by their ranges.
Smaller with longer wings. Plumage brownish with strong black streaks.
- Melospiza melodia melodia (Wilson, 1810). The nominate race
- Range: Eastern half of North America except coastal areas south from New York State. Migrate southeast for the winter.
- ID: Very light plumage with black streaks below, and grey margins to the back feathers.
- Melospiza melodia atlantica (Todd, 1924)
- Range: Salt marshes of Atlantic Coast – from New York State southwards
- ID: Resembles nominate form, except for grey back.
- Melospiza melodia montana (Henshaw, 1884)
- Occurs west of nominate form to the Rocky Mountains. Northern birds may migrate to northwestern Mexico in winter.
- ID: Larger than nominate. Plumage duller. Bill more slender.
Large, darker plumaged with dark streaks.
- Melospiza melodia maxima (Gabrielson and Lincoln, 1951)
- Range: West Aleutian Islands (Attu to Atka Island), resident.
- ID: The largest subspecies. Grey plumage with long, diffuse streaks. Bill long and slender.
- Melospiza melodia sanaka (McGregor, 1901)
- Range: Aleutians from Seguam Island east to Stepovak Bay, Alaska, and islands to the south of Alaskan Peninsula.
- ID: Resemble ssp. maxima; but greyer plumage and more slender bill.
- Melospiza melodia insignis (Baird, 1869)
- Range: Kodiak Islands and Kukak and Katmai on Alaska Peninsula
- ID: Medium-sized. Darkish grey plumage. .
- Melospiza melodia kenaiensis (Ridgway, 1900)
- Range: Pacific coast of Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound islands. Both migratory and resident populations exist.
- ID: Smaller and browner than ssp. insignis.
- Melospiza melodia caurina (Ridgway, 1899)
- Range: Northern Gulf of Alaska coast. May migrate to Pacific Northwest in winter.
- ID: Resembles ssp.kenaiensis except smaller size
- Melospiza melodia rufina (Bonaparte, 1850)
- Range: Outer islands of Alexander Archipelago and Queen Charlotte Island
- ID: Small. Plumage is very dark and rufous-colored.
- Melospiza melodia morphna (Oberholser, 1899)
- Range: Along the coast of central British Columbia south to northwestern Oregon
- ID: Resembles ssp. rufina,except plumage lighter and more rufous
- Melospiza melodia merrilli (Brewster, 1896)
- Range: Occurs between the ranges of morphna and montana south to northern Nevada
- Melospiza melodia cleonensis (McGregor, 1899)
- Range: Southwestern Oregon west of Cascade Mountains south to northwestern California.
- ID: Brownish-buffish plumage. No grey markings on the back. Below diffuse chestnut streaks
Cismontane California group
Resident (non-migratory). Small, short-winged.
- Melospiza melodia gouldii (Baird, 1858)
- Range: Coastal central California, except San Francisco Bay
- ID: Brown plumage with buffish fringes of upper back
- Melospiza melodia samuelis (Baird, 1858)
- Range: Saltmarshes of northern San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay
- ID: Small size. Tiny bill. Olive-colored back
- Melospiza melodia maxillaris (Grinnell, 1909)
- Range: Marshes of Suisun Bay in northern California
- ID: Upper plumage dark. Mantle edged brown with grey.
- Melospiza melodia pusillula (Ridgway, 1899)
- Range: Salt marshes of eastern San Francisco Bay
- ID: Yellowest plumage of all races. Paler than ssp. samuelis
- Melospiza melodia heermanni (Baird, 1858)
- Range: Central coastal California and Central Valley south to northern Baja California in northwestern Mexico
- Melospiza melodia graminea (Townsend, 1890)
- Range: Santa Barbara Island, California Channel Islands
- ID: A smaller, pale-grey version of ssp. heermanni
Small, pale, streaks rufous; all resident.
- Desert Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia fallax) (Baird, 1854)
- Range: Sonoran and parts of Mojave Deserts to eastern Arizona.
- Melospiza fasciata rivularis (Bryant, 1888)
- Range: Central Baja California
- ID: Chest slightly streaked; bill slender and long
- Melospiza melodia goldmani (Nelson, 1899)
- Range: El Salto area, Sierra Madre Oriental
- ID: Dark reddish brown back with brownish streaks
Mexican Plateau Group
Black-spotted, white throats; all resident.
- M. m. adusta (Nelson, 1899)
- Range: Río Lerma drainage from Zacapú to Lago Yuriria
- ID: Bold black pattern on belly and back, clear white throat.
- Brown cap
- Face grey with a streak through each eye
- Brown upperparts
- Dark streaks on the back
- Whitish below except for dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the chest
- Long, brown, rounded tail
- Lincoln’s Sparrows: Shorter, grey-colored tail. Head pattern different.
- Savannah Sparrow: Forked tail and small yellowish flecks on the face
Diet / Feeding
Their diet mostly consist of insects and seeds. Populations living in salt marshes may also take small crustaceans.
They also visit platform feeders in search of millet and sunflower seeds.
Nesting / Breeding
They nest either in sheltered locations on the ground or in trees or shrubs.