Backyard Birds

Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia)

The Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are medium-sized found in North America.

Within their large range, they may very well be one of the most abundant bird species.

They were named for the male’s melodious and fairly complex song – used to attract females and to declare ownership of territories.

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia
Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia

Distribution / Range

Song Sparrows occur naturally across most of Canada and the United States.

Northern populations migrate south to the southern United States or Mexico for the winter. Southern birds are often sedentary (non-migratory).

Vagrants have been reported in Western Europe, Great Britain, and Norway.

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow


Numerous subspecies have been identified that have been grouped by their ranges.

Eastern Group

Smaller with longer wings. The plumage is brownish with strong black streaks.

  • Melospiza melodia melodia (Wilson, 1810). The nominate race
    • Range: Eastern half of North America except coastal areas south of New York State. Migrate southeast for the winter.
    • ID: Very light plumage with black streaks below, and grey margins to the back feathers.
  • Melospiza melodia atlantica (Todd, 1924)
    • Range: Salt marshes of Atlantic Coast – from New York State southwards
    • ID: Resembles nominate form, except for grey back.
  • Melospiza melodia montana (Henshaw, 1884)
    • Occurs west of nominate form to the Rocky Mountains. Northern birds may migrate to northwestern Mexico in winter.
    • ID: Larger than nominate. Plumage duller. Bill is more slender.

Northwestern Group

Large, darker plumaged with dark streaks.

  • Melospiza melodia maxima (Gabrielson and Lincoln, 1951)
    • Range: West Aleutian Islands (Attu to Atka Island), resident.
    • ID: The largest subspecies. Grey plumage with long, diffuse streaks. Bill is long and slender.
  • Melospiza melodia sanaka (McGregor, 1901)
    • Range: Aleutians from Seguam Island east to Stepovak Bay, Alaska, and islands to the south of the Alaskan Peninsula.
    • ID: Resemble ssp. maxima; but with greyer plumage and a more slender bill.
  • Melospiza melodia insignis (Baird, 1869)
    • Range: Kodiak Islands and Kukak and Katmai on the Alaska Peninsula
    • ID: Medium-sized. Darkish grey plumage. .
  • Melospiza melodia kenaiensis (Ridgway, 1900)
    • Range: Pacific coast of Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound islands. Both migratory and resident populations exist.
    • ID: Smaller and browner than ssp. insignis.
  • Melospiza melodia caurina (Ridgway, 1899)
    • Range: Northern Gulf of Alaska coast. May migrate to the Pacific Northwest in winter.
    • ID: Resembles ssp. kenaiensis except for smaller size
  • Melospiza melodia rufina (Bonaparte, 1850)
    • Range: Outer islands of the Alexander Archipelago and Queen Charlotte Island
    • ID: Small. The plumage is very dark and rufous-colored.
  • Melospiza melodia morphna (Oberholser, 1899)
    • Range: Along the coast of central British Columbia south to northwestern Oregon
    • ID: Resembles ssp. rufina,except plumage lighter and more rufous
  • Melospiza melodia merrilli (Brewster, 1896)
    • Range: Occurs between the ranges of morphna and montana south to northern Nevada
  • Melospiza melodia cleonensis (McGregor, 1899)
    • Range: Southwestern Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains south to northwestern California.
    • ID: Brownish-buffish plumage. No grey markings on the back. Below diffuse chestnut streaks

Cismontane California group

Resident (non-migratory). Small, short-winged.

  • Melospiza melodia gouldii (Baird, 1858)
    • Range: Coastal central California, except San Francisco Bay
    • ID: Brown plumage with buffish fringes of upper back
  • Melospiza melodia samuelis (Baird, 1858)
    • Range: Saltmarshes of northern San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay
    • ID: Small size. Tiny bill. Olive-colored back
  • Melospiza melodia maxillaris (Grinnell, 1909)
    • Range: Marshes of Suisun Bay in northern California
    • ID: Upper plumage dark. Mantle-edged brown with grey.
  • Melospiza melodia pusillula (Ridgway, 1899)
    • Range: Salt marshes of eastern San Francisco Bay
    • ID: Yellowest plumage of all races. Paler than ssp. samuelis
  • Melospiza melodia heermanni (Baird, 1858)
    • Range: Central coastal California and Central Valley south to northern Baja California in northwestern Mexico
  • Melospiza melodia graminea (Townsend, 1890)
    • Range: Santa Barbara Island, California Channel Islands
    • ID: A smaller, pale-grey version of ssp. heermanni
Song Sparrow

Southwestern group

Small, pale, streaks rufous; all resident.

  • Desert Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia fallax) (Baird, 1854)
    • Range: Sonoran and parts of Mojave Deserts to eastern Arizona.
  • Melospiza fasciata rivularis (Bryant, 1888)
    • Range: Central Baja California
    • ID: Chest slightly streaked; bill slender and long
  • Melospiza melodia goldmani (Nelson, 1899)
    • Range: El Salto area, Sierra Madre Oriental
    • ID: Dark reddish brown back with brownish streaks

Mexican Plateau Group

Black-spotted, white throats; all resident.

  • M. m. adusta (Nelson, 1899)
    • Range: Río Lerma drainage from Zacapú to Lago Yuriria
    • ID: Bold black pattern on the belly and back, clear white throat.

Song Sparrow


  • Brown cap
  • Face grey with a streak through each eye
  • Brown upperparts
  • Dark streaks on the back
  • Whitish below except for dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the chest
  • Long, brown, rounded tail

Similar Species

  • Lincoln’s Sparrows: Shorter, grey-colored tail. Head pattern different.
  • Savannah Sparrow: Forked tail and small yellowish flecks on the face

Diet / Feeding

Their diet mostly consists of insects and seeds. Populations living in salt marshes may also take small crustaceans.

They also visit platform feeders in search of millet and sunflower seeds.

Nesting / Breeding

They nest either in sheltered locations on the ground or in trees or shrubs.


Gordon Ramel

Gordon is an ecologist with two degrees from Exeter University. He's also a teacher, a poet and the owner of 1,152 books. Oh - and he wrote this website.

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