A relative newcomer to Tennessee, the Song Sparrow started nesting in the far eastern corner of the state in the late 1800s. Scattered populations started to appear in Middle and West Tennessee in the 1940s through the 1970s. Currently, the Song Sparrow is a common nester only in the eastern third of Tennessee, but is found throughout the state in winter. The species has a very wide distribution, breeding across most of North America south to northern Mexico. Song Sparrows are partially or completely migratory depending on snow cover and winter temperature; some individuals remain on or near their breeding grounds while others move farther south. The winter range extends from southern Canada to Mexico and Florida, and wintering birds arrive in Tennessee in October and depart in early April.
Description: Both male and female are brown with dark streaks above, and below are white with dark streaking that forms a dark central spot on the breast. The face pattern is brown and gray, the tail is relatively long and in flight it appears they pump it up and down. Juveniles (April-September) are similar to adults, but have finer streaking on the face and breast. Geographically this species is very variable with larger, darker birds in the Northwest, and paler individuals in the Southwest. Length: 6.25"
Weight: 0.7 oz
Voice: The song has three or four clear introductory notes, followed by a short variable trill, and ending in a short jumble of notes. One translation is maids maids maids put on your tea kettle ettle. The call is a nasal and hollow-sounding chimp. Songs can vary widely among individuals, but the pattern of notes is generally maintained.
- Fox Sparrows, uncommon migrant and winter residents in Tennessee, are larger, have heavier streaks on the breast, and are more red than brown overall.
- Lincoln's Sparrow, an uncommon migrant and a rare winter resident in Tennessee, has a shorter, grayer tail, and a buff (not white) upper breast with finer streaking.
- Savannah Sparrow, a fairly common migrant and winter resident in Tennessee, has a shorter, slightly notched tail, and a yellow tinge between its eyes and bill.
- Vesper Sparrow has a white eye-ring and white outer tail feathers. It is an uncommon migrant, rare winter resident, and is a locally uncommon summer resident in Tennessee.
Habitat: Found in a variety of open, shrubby areas, especially in thickets near streams and rivers, and in urban and suburban areas.
Diet: Seeds, fruits, invertebrates.
Nesting and reproduction: Song Sparrows are strongly territorial and the male defends his territory for more six months each year. In Tennessee, egg laying peaks in early May, and Song Sparrows regularly raise three and occasionally four broods.
Clutch Size: Usually 4 to 5 eggs. Clutches of 5 are more common early in the season.
Incubation: Females incubate the eggs for 12 to 13 days.
Fledging: Both adults feed the nestlings, which leave the nest in 10 days and become independent in 28 to 30 days. The female will leave the young in the care of the male when she begins the next nest.
Nest: The female builds the nest in 3 to 4 days. It is an open cup made of dead grass and weed stems, and lined with fine grasses. Before plants have leafed out, nests are frequently built on the ground; later it is usually placed low in shrubs.
Status in Tennessee: The Song Sparrow is common throughout the state in the winter, but breeds primarily in the eastern third of Tennessee and in scattered locations in Middle Tennessee. Wintering birds usually arrive in October and stay through early April. Song Sparrow numbers appear to be increasing everywhere in the state.
Dynamic map of Song Sparrow eBird observations in Tennessee
- The Song Sparrow is one of the most widespread songbirds in North America and has 24 recognized subspecies. These subspecies can look very different; birds from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska are 150% heavier than the smallest subspecies in the California salt marshes. The darkest individuals are found in the Pacific Northwest and the palest in the deserts of the Southwest.
Obsolete English Names: Townsend's finch, song finch
Best places to see in Tennessee: In summer, open grassy and shrubby fields and fencerows in eastern Tennessee. In middle Tennessee, they are scarce, but for some reason appear to be more abundant in the vicinity of Coffee County. Common statewide in winter.
For more information:
National Audubon Society Historical Account
Arcese, P., M.K. Sogge, A.B. Marr and M.A. Patten. 2002. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), The Birds of North America, No. 704 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.