Sagebrush Sparrow

The Sagebrush Sparrow is an elegant bird found in the great open spaces of the intermountain west of the North American continent. These birds primarily nest in Sage shrubs and thus the name “sagebrush”. These ground foraging birds need intact sage tracts for successful breeding.

About Sagebrush Sparrows

The male Sagebrush Sparrows sing an abrupt pleasant song in summers perched on the sage shrubs while their gray underbellies match the muted grayish-green color of the sage shrubs perfectly.

A very interesting thing about these birds is the taxonomical confusion they created throughout history. In the 19th century, these birds were clubbed together with another related species and were commonly known as Bell’s Sparrows. By 1910, they were split into two as Bell’s and Sagebrush Sparrows. However, by 1957, the two were merged again and named Sagebrush Sparrows just to be split again in 2013 finally as Bell’s Sparrows and Sagebrush Sparrows.

Don’t these little grayish Sparrows with a history of confusing ornithologists look particularly interesting? Let’s find out more about them.

● Sagebrush Sparrow Photos, Color Pattern, Song
● Sagebrush Sparrow Size, Eating behavior, Habitat
● Sagebrush Sparrow Range and Migration, Nesting


Sagebrush Sparrow Color Pattern

Sagebrush Sparrows are colorful little birds. These birds have a brown above with soft gray underbellies. The head is round and gray with bold eye rings around the eyes. These eye rings are white in color and make them look rather cute. The head also has a subtle white spot before the eyes and a dark stripe bordering the throat. The wings are brown with light underparts and there is a dark spot in the middle of the breast. The tail of the Sagebrush Sparrows is dark in color but has light edges to the outer feathers.

Juvenile birds are more uniformly than adults. They also lack the intense grayness of the head and the streaky breast and underparts.

Description and Identification

Sagebrush Sparrows were considered to be one of the 5 subspecies of the Sage Sparrows. However, in 2013, these birds were classified as a whole different species and the 4 other subspecies were classified as the subspecies of the Bell’s Sparrow. It is easier to tell the Sagebrush Sparrows from other sparrows in the family as they have a pretty unique color scheme and bold eye-rings. Among the closest species, the Bell’s Sparrows can be told apart as they lack the streaks and are grayer than Sagebrush Sparrows meanwhile, Vesper Sparrows lack the gray head and are way more streaked.

Sagebrush Sparrows can be identified easily by their habitat as they are either on the ground or are concealed in shrubs. During the summer; however, the male birds are found because of their singing.

Adult Sagebrush Sparrows can be told apart from the Juveniles as these young ones are more uniformly brown and lack most of the gray tones.

Sagebrush Sparrow Song

Only the male Sagebrush Sparrows sing. They sing an abrupt but pleasant song during the summers perched on the sage bushes. This song is an abrupt series of several thrills that are broken up by shorter chips in between. The song lasts for 2 seconds or so. Each male gives one song type which can vary by changing the last syllable.

Sagebrush Sparrow’s song is composed of elements that are fine-tuned for the vast, windy steppe. The patterns and frequencies of the song are carried well in the open, windy landscape without degrading.

Apart from songs, there are some calls that both the sexes of Sagebrush Sparrows make. As a contact call, these birds make a bell-like “tink” sound. A similar note is used as an Alarm call but it is more forceful and intense.

Sagebrush Sparrow Size

These Sparrows are a regular Sparrow size. Relatively, Sagebrush Sparrows are about the size of a Song Sparrow which is slightly larger than a Brewer’s Sparrow. These birds measure a good 4.7-5.9 inches (12-15 cm) lengthwise and weigh around 0.5-0.8 ounces (15-22 g).

Sagebrush Sparrow Behavior

Sagebrush Sparrows are inconspicuous birds and spend most of their time on the ground or in dense shrubs, foraging and running while flicking their tails. In early summers and springs, males perch on top of the sage shrubs and sing as a means of establishing territories and breeding. Right after finishing a song, the males drop right back to the ground to continue foraging or protecting their mate from other rival males; however, foraging happens in small flocks.

Sagebrush Sparrows reach the breeding grounds already as pairs which are highly unlikely for any other migrant species of birds. After reaching, males don’t start singing vigorously as the pairs are already made and the singing serves mostly for the purpose of territory establishment rather than attracting mates. The female birds build the nest as the males keep singing.

Sagebrush Sparrow Diet

Sagebrush Sparrows feed majorly on seeds. However, they tend to be more opportunistic during the breeding seasons and become omnivores. The insect diet includes varieties of beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, and other insects. The plant diet mostly consists of seeds, small fruits, and succulent vegetation. During the nonbreeding seasons, Sagebrush Sparrows revert back to eating mainly seeds. However the young are fed heavily with insects.

Sagebrush Sparrows mostly forage food on the ground, picking up insects and seeds from the surface of the ground or stems of plants. They sometimes scratch with their feet and collect the food item. These birds may also do some feeding upon the lower levels of the bushes.

Sagebrush Sparrow Habitat

Sagebrush Sparrows breed in the shrub-steppe habitats. These habitats have shrubs that are up to 6 feet tall, especially, Sagebrush, Rabbitbrush, Shad scale, and bitterbrush.

These birds are mostly found at elevations that are below 5,600 ft, in the intermountain west of Northern America. Along with shrubs, Sagebrush Sparrows also inhabit mixed Sagebrush and Juniper habitats bordering open sagebrush steppe.

During migrations and wintering, these birds make flocks with mixed-species Sparrows and use dry shrublands and grasslands with creosote and saltbush-dominated desert scrub, yucca, honey mesquite, and greasewood.

Range and Migration

These birds primarily need sagebrush steppe for breeding success thus they are mostly found in the interior of Western North America. Their range includes the Western United States between the Rocky Mountains and coastal ranges like the Cascades and northwestern Mexico.

Sagebrush Sparrows migrate towards the southwestern states for wintering. The wintering happens in the Mexican border, northern Sonora, and Chihuahua.

Sagebrush Sparrow Lifecycle

Sagebrush Sparrows have a lifespan of at least 8-10 years in the wild. These birds formulate pairs even before reaching the breeding grounds, unlike any other migrant birds. The females make the nests while the males sing to establish territories. The female lays a clutch of 1-4 eggs that are pale blue or bluish-white in color with specks of brown, ruby, or black. The incubation period is for 10-16 days and the hatchlings are orange-yellow skinned when born. The young are fed by both parents and the primary diet is insects.

Sagebrush Sparrows raise 2 broods per year. Sometimes it is 1 or rarely can be 3 broods too. The juveniles leave the nest after 9-10 days of hatching. Juveniles from first clutches form small flocks in July, to be joined in late August by second-clutch juveniles and adults. Sagebrush Sparrows form small, mixed-species flocks with other Sparrows during migration.


Sagebrush Sparrows usually nest in dense shrubs that are at least 6 feet tall. But they also nest on the ground, under the shrubs, and in the grass. The advantage of the ground nests is the warmth that helps in the starting of the breeding season. But the nests on the shrubs, placed in higher canopies have the advantage of better air circulation for the increasing heat in summer. Even though Sagebrush Sparrows prefer sagebrush shrubs for nesting, they might also select other large shrubs in the places with higher shrub diversity. They tend to build their nests under the densest cover within the shrub and nearer the main stem than the outer edges. They also tend to avoid southwest aspects, possibly because of exposure to the afternoon sun.

The female builds the nest, which is an open cup of twigs and coarse grasses, lined with finer grasses and thin bark, and finally feathers, wool, and animal hair. Nests measure about 4 inches across, and the inner cup is typically about 2.5 inches across and 2 inches deep.

Anatomy of a Sagebrush Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrows are small songbirds but are medium-sized for Sparrows. These birds have significantly long tails. The head is small and rounded. The bill of these birds is fairly short and thick. The feet are slender and have curled toes with nails.

Final Thoughts

As medium-sized Sparrows of the west wide open spaces, Sagebrush Sparrows apparently hold one of the largest territories known for any Sparrow species. Sagebrush Sparrows are also known to be very loyal to their breeding ground territories and have been found to be returning to them again and again. A male Sagebrush Sparrow was found to be returning to his territory for 6 consecutive years in Oregon.

Even though these birds are in the category of low concern when it comes to conservation, there are certain factors that do threaten their existence through the loss of habitats. Sagebrush Sparrows depend on sagebrush and will abandon habitats that become altered by cheatgrass invasion, sagebrush, and other shrub removals, or overgrazing of native forbs by livestock. Habitat fragmentation can expose Sagebrush Sparrows to Brown-headed Cowbird parasitism.


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At the Bird Watching Academy & Camp we help kids, youth, and adults get excited and involved in bird watching. We have several monthly subscription boxes that you can subscribe to. Our monthly subscription boxes help kids, youth, and adults learn about birds, bird watching, and bird conservation.

Bird Watching Binoculars for Identifying Sagebrush Sparrows

The most common types of bird watching binoculars for viewing Sagebrush Sparrows are 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. Bird Watching Academy & Camp sells really nice 8×21 binoculars and 10×42 binoculars. You can view and purchase them here.

Sagebrush Sparrow Stickers

Stickers are a great way for you to display your love for bird watching and the Sagebrush Sparrow. We sell a monthly subscription sticker pack. The sticker packs have 12 bird stickers. These sticker packs will help your kids learn new birds every month.

Bird Feeders ForSagebrush Sparrows

There are many types of bird feeders. Bird feeders are a great addition to your backyard. Bird feeders will increase the chances of attracting birds drastically. Both kids and adults will have a great time watching birds eat at these bird feeders. There are a wide variety of bird feeders on the market and it is important to find the best fit for you and your backyard.

Bird HousesForSagebrush Sparrows

There are many types of bird houses. Building a bird house is always fun but can be frustrating. Getting a bird house for kids to watch birds grow is always fun. If you spend a little extra money on bird houses, it will be well worth every penny and they’ll look great.

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