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Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow on a fence post

Scientific name: Passerculus sandwichensis

New York Status: Not Listed
Federal Status: Not Listed


This medium-sized sparrow is one of the most abundant in all of North America, and is found in open areas with low-lying vegetation. Adults, usually range in size from 4.3-6 inches, with the males being slightly larger. Savannah sparrows have a distinct yellow patch on the face in front of the eye. Their upper parts are brown with black streaks, and the underpants are white with thin brown streaks on the breast.

Their small beaks are specialized for seed-eating during the winter. During the breeding season, males are often heard singing their buzzing, insect-like song in agricultural fields and grasslands.

The breeding range of the savannah sparrow is northern United States and Canda. The migration, non-breeding and year-round range is primarily in the southern United States and into Central America
Savannah sparrow range map from Birds of the World,
maintained by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Life History

Males return from the wintering grounds a week before the females in mid-to-late April to claim their territory. Once copulation has occurred, the female selects the nest site, often near the edge of her mate's territory, requiring him to rigorous defend the area from other males. The female hides the nest amongst thick thatch from the prior season's dead grasses. Nests are commonly found on the ground or low in grasses, goldenrod, or low shrubs. The typical clutch size is 2-6 eggs, with an incubation period of 12-13 days. The young are altricial (helpless), and remain in the nest for 8-13 days before fledging. Both the male and female assist with parental care post-fledging.

During the breeding season, savannah sparrows generally eat insects and spiders, which provide them with an abundant amount of nutrients. During the winter, they switch their diet to mainly small seeds from grasses and forbs.

Distribution and Habitat

The breeding range extends from the tundra in northern Canada and Alaska to the central United States, including the northern Great Plains, Great Lakes Region, New England, the Rockies, and even parts of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. They depart for their wintering range, which includes much of the southern United States, Mexico, and Central America, between mid-September and early November. Savannah sparrows live in grasslands with few trees, including meadows, pastures, grassy roadsides, sedge wetlands, and agricultural fields. Along coastlines, they can inhabit tidal salt-marshes and estuaries. At the northern extent of their breeding range, they live among the shrubby willows of the tundra.


Savannah Sparrow Breeding Bird Atlas Maps
Savannah sparrow data from 1st and 2nd Breeding Bird Atlas records.

During the early part of the 20th Century, savannah sparrows benefited from humans modifying the landscape from forests to open grasslands. However, over the past few decades, populations have declined due to urbanization as well as changes in farming practices. Like other grassland species, Savannah Sparrows have suffered due to the shift from hayfields and dairy farms to intensive row-cropping of cash crops such as corn, wheat, and soybeans.

Management and Research Needs

Savannah sparrow nesting may be disrupted when grassy areas are mowed or fields are hayed before the young have fledged. In order to prevent these high nestling mortality rates, landowners are encouraged to wait until after the nesting season, mid-August in New York, before they mow their fields. Management of their migration stopover and wintering grounds is also critical for their survival.