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Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow
Pooecetes gramineus

The name for this relatively large, drab sparrow comes from its melodious singing in the evening twilight, though it also sings vigorously in early morning. It breeds across the northern and western grasslands, and reaches its southeastern breeding limit in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, where it is a rare and local; during the non-breeding season it retires to the southern and central United States and Mexico. Clearing of land by European settlers likely led to the expansion of the Vesper's range into the East, but since the early 1900s when farmlands started to revert again to forest, this part of the population began a dramatic decline. In 1976, TWRA listed the Vesper Sparrow as a species In-Need-of-Management in Tennessee.

Description: This large, grayish-brown sparrow is streaked gray and brown above, and brown and soft-white below. It has a white eye-ring, and the outer tail feathers are white. Males and females look the same. The small patch of rust at the shoulder is not always visible.

Length: 6.25"
Wingspan: 10"
Weight: 0.91 oz.

Voice: The song as described by Henry David Thoreau in his Journal entry for 13 April 1854: "somewhat like char, (or here here), che che, chip, chip, chip (fast), chitter, chitter, chitter chit (very fast and jingling), tchea ttchea (jinglingly).

Similar Species:

  • Song Sparrow lacks white in the tail, is more boldly streaked on the chest, and has no distinct eye-ring.
  • Savannah Sparrow has a shorter tail, a yellowish eye-stripe, and no white eye-ring or white outer tail feathers.
  • American Pipet and Sprague's Pipit have white outer tail feathers, but have thinner bills, walk instead of hop, and frequently bob their tails.

Habitat: Short grass and weedy fields, meadows, heavily grazed fields with scattered shrubs, fence posts, or rocks for song perches.

Diet: Seeds of grasses, weeds, and grain crops; also insects during the breeding season.

Nesting and reproduction: Vesper Sparrows are monogamous and will often raise two broods in a season.

Clutch Size: Usually 3-6 eggs, with 4 most common.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 12 to 13 days.

Fledging: Both adults feed the young, which fledge in 9 to 13 days. The male continues to tend the fledglings, while the female starts the second nest.

Nest: A shallow cup of woven grasses, placed on the ground, concealed by adjacent vegetation.

Status in Tennessee: The Vesper's Sparrow is a locally uncommon summer resident in East Tennessee, and a regular but uncommon migrant and rare winter resident elsewhere in the state. It can be present in the state most anytime of the year, but is more likely to be found in early March to late May, and from early October to late November, with a few birds present throughout the winter. It is currently listed as In Need of Management in Tennessee.

Dynamic map of Vesper Sparrow eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • Vesper Sparrows appear to learn their song from nearby adults, as the songs of neighbors tend to be more similar than between regions. In one documented case, a Vesper Sparrow mistakenly learned the song of a Bewick's Wren.
  • The Vesper Sparrow responds quickly to changes in habitat; it is often the first species to occupy reclaimed mine sites and abandon old farm fields.
  • This species was first described by German naturalist Johann Friedrich Gmelin in 1789, and is still the only member of its genus.
  • The American naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) changed the name of this bird, long known as the Bay-winged Bunting, to Vesper Sparrow, because he thought the song sounded melodious in the evening.

Obsolete English Names: Grass Finch, Bay-winged Bunting or Sparrow, Hesperian Bird.

Best place to see in Tennessee: During the breeding season, Shady Valley or the balds of Roan Mountain above 1,520 feet.

For more information:


Jones, S. L., and J. E. Cornely. 2002. Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus).The Birds of North America, No. 624. (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.

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