Harris's Sparrow

Zonotrichia querula

harriss_sparrow.jpg

Photo of an immature harris's sparrow
Immature Harris's sparrows resemble the winter adults but have less black on chest and crown. There is a black stripe on each side of the white throat.
MDC Staff
Family

Emberizidae (sparrows, longspurs, buntings) in the order Passeriformes

Description

Adult upperparts are buffy brown with reddish brown and black streaks. There are two white wing bars. The head is yellowish tan, with a black crown and pink bill. Underparts are white with streaked flanks, with a black throat and upper breast. The amount of black on the underparts varies greatly with age, with more black on older birds. The bill is pink. In winter, the black crown and bib is mixed with gray and tan, which gives it a patchy appearance. In early spring, adults molt into a breeding plumage which is much more handsome: less buffy, with gray sides to the head. Immature birds have much less black, and their white throat is bordered on each side by a black malar line. The song consists of long, clear, quavering whistles, frequently changing pitch. The call is a tseet or a sharp, alarmed weenk or cheenk.

Similar species: Harris's sparrow is one of our largest sparrows and might be confused with a male house sparrow. A Harris's sparrow's black bib, face, and crown contrast sharply with its gray cheeks, white belly, and pink beak. A male house sparrow has a chestnut brown nape, gray cap, gray, unstreaked belly, and gray, black, or yellowish beak (not pink).

 

Size

Length: 7½ inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

Harris's Sparrow

Photo of an immature harris's sparrow
Audio of Harris's sparrow in the wild.

Harris's Sparrow

A small brown bird with a white front sits on a tree branch in winter.
Harris's sparrow in Buchanan County
Habitat and conservation

In western Missouri, this species commonly winters in brushy fields and open woods. Harris's sparrow is in the same genus as the white-throated and white-crowned sparrows; they are all relatively large sparrows and in winter typically form flocks in thickety places.

Foods

Forages for seeds in brushy woodland edges, weedy fields, and thickets. Usually feeds on the ground, and sometimes visits bird feeders.

image of Harris's Sparrow distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide; more common in the western half.

Status

As a migrant, common in western Missouri; rare in the eastern half. As a winter resident, uncommon in western Missouri and rare in the east. John James Audubon named this species, as well as the Harris's hawk, to honor his traveling companion Edward Harris.

Life cycle

Harris's sparrows are present in Missouri October through April; they breed in stunted boreal forests along the tundra of northern Canada. They are the only bird species known to nest entirely within the borders of Canada, and nowhere else. Their grass- and hair-lined cup nests are built into the ground in a base of mosses, leaves, and weed stems. A clutch comprises 3–5 eggs. The wintering territory is a fairly narrow band in the US heartland, from South Dakota to the southern tip of Texas. A Harris's sparrow can live to be at least 11 years old.

Human connections

Because of its remote breeding grounds, it was a long time before scientists ever saw a Harris's sparrow nest. In 1931, George M. Sutton found a nest with eggs near Churchill, Manitoba. Before that, in 1907, a nest with near-fledgling young had been found by Ernest Thompson Seton, on an island in the Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories. Seton was a founder of the Boy Scouts of America. He incorporated into the organization many popular aspects inspired by Native American cultures, especially woodcraft, camping, conservation, and nature education.

Ecosystem connections

The size of black bibs in male Harris's sparrows corresponds with their age and social dominance status: the older, more dominant males have larger black bibs, and they get the best selection of food and resting places. Interestingly, it is the same case with the black bibs of male house sparrows, which are in a different family of birds.