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Winter Distribution of Harris' Sparrow

Please cite this Page as:
Johnson, T. 1994.  Winter Distribution of Harris' Sparrow.  Birdscope, Volume 8, Number 3:  6-7.

A student takes a closer look at Project Feeder Watch data

Tammy Johnson is a 15 year-old who has been involved in Project Feeder Watch for three years. Tammy contacted Project FeederWatch staff in 1992 to request data on Harris' Sparrows for a 4-H Club project. Her report and poster display won top honors at the Tri-Rivers Fair in Salina, Kansas, and she was cited nationally by 4-H for excellence in the study of "Conservation of Wildlife and Natural Resources."

The Harris' Sparrow is a common bird at our feeders every year. It has an orangeish bill, a black face, black crown, and streaked sides. It feeds on the ground and likes seeds and some insects. With this description and its size (it is the largest sparrow in the United States) it is very easy to identify. (See box, below)

The winter range of the Harris' Sparrow looked small in my field guide, and its summer range was very far north. This pattern made me curious, so I did some reading. The bird books show that Harris' Sparrows winter from central Nebraska down to central Texas. They spend their summer in the Yukon Territory, then migrate down through the central United States.

Harris' Sparrow arrives in Kansas in late October. This past fall an early snow/ice storm on October 31 brought the sparrows to my feeders. Normally, I don't see them until the end of December. Sometime near the end of April, the Harris' Sparrow starts its migration back to its summer home. On a field trip to Kanopolis Lake on April 29 I saw a lot of birds along the edge of a road, graveling up. When we looked close, we found they were Harris' Sparrows--50 or more. This was probably right before they migrated north.

Since the Harris' Sparrow nests so far north, I can only read about its habits. It seems odd that a bird so common in my area in the winter is so far away at nesting time. The birds nest on the ground at the base of a stunted spruce or shrub or in the side of a moss hummock in a wet place. Their nest is made of moss, leaves, and stems lined with grass. They have three to five pale greenish eggs which are heavily splotched with brown.

I wondered if their range ever changed much, but I didn't know how to check. Then I remembered FeederWatch and contacted the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to see if they could send me the results of their Harris' Sparrow sightings around North America. They were really helpful, and I received the computer printouts I needed.

The first thing I looked at was how many sightings were in Kansas. There were 25 different locations in my state. Sixteen locations had two or more sightings on different weeks, and on 16 occasions 10 or more birds were seen at one time.

Next I wanted to find out how Kansas compared to other states in the number and location of Harris' Sparrows. The top six states (states that had over seven different locations where Harris' Sparrows had been seen) were Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Iowa, and Colorado. Other states where lesser numbers were seen were North Dakota, South Dakota, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Arkansas, and New Mexico. The area where most of the Harris' Sparrows were found corresponded closely with the map of its range in the Golden book, Birds of North America. The states with over 10 Harris' Sparrows at one location were Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado. These data indicate there could be large numbers of our birds in those areas.

One problem I had with the FeederWatch data was that they did not include the locations where the people observed the birds. This made it hard to see where in each state the Harris' Sparrow spent its winter. I made a second call to Cornell and asked FeederWatch data analyst Diane Tessaglia if there were some way to identify the location of each observation. She sent me the zip codes for each location. Using a zip code directory, I identified the cities. Then I marked each location on a map of the United States. This map clearly showed the winter range of the Harris' sparrow (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Winter range of the Harris's Sparrow.

Winter range for Harris's Sparrow (9513 bytes)

After reviewing Tammy's map, we decided to look at the total picture for the Harris' Sparrow by combining all six years of FeederWatch data. We removed from the data set any questionable records, for example, east of the Mississippi or on the West Coast. The end result of our analysis is this map of the bird's range.

Since the Harris' Sparrow's favorite habitat is by the edges of hedge rows and tree lines, its range map should show that. Looking at the map, we can see that almost all of the observations do occur along the edge of the old forest/grassland biome.

I am looking forward to the Harris' Sparrows' arrival next winter so I can observe them better. I have learned a lot from this project about the actual winter range of the Harris' Sparrow, our largest North American sparrow.

Can You Identify a Harris' Sparrow?

As we gathered the data to generate the map that accompanies this article, we discovered many reports of Harris' Sparrows in locations that are outside this bird's normal range. We suspect that what FeederWatchers were actually seeing is the similar-looking male House Sparrow.

In most field guides, you won't find the House Sparrow on the same page as the other sparrows, because it's not in the same family as the North American sparrows-it's a member of the Old-World family known as Weaver Finches.

Two field marks can help you distinguish the two species: the color of the crown (black or spotted with black in Harris' Sparrow, plain gray in House Sparrow; and the color of the bill (usually bright pink in Harris Sparrow, dull brown or black in House Sparrow.) Also, Harris' Sparrow is distinctly larger than House Sparrow (7 to 7.5 inches vs. 5.5 inches) and has at least some streaking on the sides and flanks.

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Harris' Sparrows do sometimes wander far from their usual range, however, so if you see a sparrow with a black bib, look closely at the pattern of black on the head and face, and consult your field guide.