Song sparrows are one of North America’s most recognized sparrow species, with their tuneful repertoire of trills and buzzes heard from early spring. Read our complete guide to song sparrow nesting to learn more about the habitats in which these vocal songbirds build nests and raise young.
Song sparrows are persistent nesters, and may begin work on up to seven nests in a breeding season. Not all of these will be used for raising young, with a maximum of four broods in a year. Cup-shaped nests are built close to the ground, hidden deep in vegetation.
Brushy grasslands, the edges of woodlands, and backyard shrubs and bushes offer ideal nesting habitats for song sparrows, but you won’t see them using nesting boxes or tree cavities.
Nests, built by the female from bark, grasses, leaves and roots, are used for one brood and may be discarded if they are too flimsy or damaged by bad weather.
If you’re interested in finding out about the nesting habits of song sparrows and different roles taken by males and females during the breeding season, then you’ll learn more here.
Song sparrows can work on up to seven nests in a single breeding season
Song sparrows breed across North America, as far north as Alaska and central and southern Canada, as well as in the west and east of the United States. Nests are constructed in low-level shrubbery, including bushes, roots and beneath grassy thickets.
A strong fidelity to previous nesting locations has been observed in song sparrows, with birds frequently returning to the same spot each year. Territorial clashes may occur with other song sparrows that have laid claim to their favored patch of shrubbery.
Song sparrows do nest in backyards if certain conditions are present. They seek areas with dense shrubs, bushy plants, ornamental grasses and an absence of pet cats! Gardens with prickly shrubs for them to nest in the roots of are particularly sought after.
Song sparrow with a caterpillar in beak, to feed the hungry chicks in the nest
Song sparrows will not nest in an artificial nesting box or a natural tree cavity. Instead, they build their own cup-shaped nests, picking a location close to ground level and sheltered from view by dense vegetation, shrubby branches or thick grass shoots.
Rather than trees, song sparrows tend to choose bushes and low-level shrubs as nesting spots, hidden from view by thick undergrowth and foliage. Popular nest spots include underneath dense clumps of grass and sedge, and at the base of rose bushes.
Switchgrass, prairie dropseed, redbud, serviceberry and native roses, including Carolina and Virginia roses all offer suitable nesting cover and foraging opportunities.
A typical nest site chosen by a song sparrow will be close to ground level, tucked away out of sight in bushes or other dense vegetation.
s the breeding season progresses and more foliage cover has grown up, it becomes common for higher altitude spots to be chosen, including foliage up to 4.6 m (15 ft) off the ground.
Some of the highest nest sites are up to 9.2 m (30 ft), but these are far less common than nests built close to the ground.
Song sparrows build their nests on the ground, typically in dense vegetation
Song sparrow nests are strongly built cup-shaped structures, with a looser outer layer of straw, grasses, bark and weeds shaped together to form a rounded outer cup. An internal cup is then formed, and neatly lined with grasses, small roots and animal fur or hair.
Song sparrow nests measure around 10 cm to 20 cm (4 in to 8 in) across, with the diameter of the internal cup between 5.1 cm and 6.4 cm (2 in and 2.5 in). Usual nest height is from 6.4 cm to 10.2 cm (2.5 in to 4 in).
Song sparrow perched in a tree, full of song
The onset of song sparrow breeding varies greatly according to geographical location. In the far north of the species’ range, Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, breeding may not begin until mid-May. At the opposite end of the scale, breeding in San Francisco has been reported as early as February.
The earliest nest-building attempts for song sparrows are observed from February onwards, and it’s not unusual for two or three unfinished nests to be abandoned before a nest strong enough to sustain eggs and chicks is accomplished.
Nest-building takes an average of 4 or 5 days, although laying may not begin for a further 2 to 4 weeks after completion if interrupted by bad weather, but usually takes place within a matter of days.
Eggs hatch following 13 to 15 days of incubation. Nestlings are ready to leave after around 10 to 12 days, but young from broods that hatch later in the season may fledge only 8 or 9 days after hatching.
March and April are the peak months for song sparrows to lay their first clutches. The further south they live, the earlier laying may start.
Song sparrows do not nest outside of the breeding season, and will not use nest boxes or tree hollows for shelter in winter. Species that breed in extreme northern regions, for example southern Canada, migrate south to spend winters in the U.S. and northern Mexico.
Some may form small flocks for foraging, and roost together in dense vegetation, including low bushes, shrubs and thickets.
Close up of a Song sparrow perched on a rock
Pairs select a suitable nest site together but females work alone on the actual construction of the nest, usually out of sight and in the morning. Males may remain nearby, as mere onlookers, and can be heard making a loud chip call, possibly as a warning to deter predators.
The nest’s base is constructed first, using grapevine bark, which is then topped with grasses and long stems, pulled into a deep cup shape. This process takes between two or three days.
A lining is then added, and shaped into a smoother internal depression in which the eggs will be laid. Once the nest is complete, it may be up to five days before the first eggs are laid.
Grapevine bark provides a strong outer foundation on which a song sparrow’s nest is crafted. Long grasses, up to 70 cm, are tucked together loosely to form a rounded nest construction.
Weeds, roots, and straw may also be used in this outer layer. The inside of a song sparrow’s nest is a tidier affair, with soft rootlets, grasses and animal fur added as a finishing touch to create a soft lining.
Female song sparrows build their nests alone; males may show willing by gathering nesting materials and dropping them nearby, but females tend to source their own nest matter and proceed to complete each of their nest attempts without any intervention.
Close up of a Song sparrow gathering nesting material
There is a lot of variation in the appearance of song sparrows’ eggs, with records of blue-green, blue and pale gray eggs. Eggs are marked with spots, which can be red, reddish-brown or even violet in color.
Song sparrow eggs are small, measuring 1.7 cm to 2.3 cm (0.7 in to 0.9 in) in length and 1.4 cm to 1.7 cm (0.6 in to 0.7 in) in width
Most song sparrow clutches contain 3 to 5 eggs. On occasion, 6 eggs may be laid, or clutches with only 1 or 2 eggs will also be hatched – in these cases, it’s likely that failed eggs will have been ejected.
Only female song sparrows develop a brood patch and incubate eggs. Males do not visit the nest site during incubation, but females do leave briefly to forage for food.
These absences are usually recorded after the male song is heard near the nest site, indicating that males may take a role in guarding their unhatched eggs, even from a short distance away.
Close up of four unhatched Song sparrow eggs inside the nest - Song sparrow eggs are highly variable in color
Young song sparrows are usually ready to leave the nest by day 10 or 11. Later in the season, fledging may take place as early as 8 or 9 days, and is always complete by day 15 after hatching.
Fledglings remain largely dependent on parents for food and protection for the first 4 weeks after leaving the nest, but gradually master insect-catching skills and the art of successful foraging.
Two or sometimes three broods a year is most common for song sparrows, although on rare occasions four broods may be raised successfully in the same breeding season.
Close up of a Song sparrow perched on a branch
It is common for song sparrows to attempt up to 7 clutches in a breeding season, with up to 4 successfully hatching. They will abandon their nests if disturbed by bad weather, and commonly will begin construction of up to three nests before their first successful nest is achieved.
Song sparrows are adaptable, hardy little birds, and their variable choice of nest sites is a testimony to their flexible approach to habitat selection.
Nests can be found at ground level, in flower-bed foliage or shrubbery or low down in clumps of tall grass, as well as higher positions, in trees up to 4.6 m (15 ft) off the ground.
Later season nests are less likely to be on the ground, and can be built in higher branches, up to 9.2 m (30 ft) above the ground.
Only brooding females use nests at night, and outside the breeding season, no birds use nests in either the daytime or the night. Instead, communal roosts form, with groups of song sparrows seeking shelter during darkness hours in shrubbery, bushes, and in dense leafy foliage of low trees.
Song sparrows are usually happy to live in close contact with humans, and will routinely use nest sites in flowerbeds or low down in clumps of shrubbery.
They will readily visit backyard feeders, foraging on the ground below hanging feeders for seeds, in particular millet. Backyards with these conditions present may be successful in attracting nesting song sparrows. Nest sites close to water are also highly prized.
Song sparrows rarely nest in tall trees or either natural tree cavities, or manmade nesting boxes, so adding these to your backyard won’t help you to attract nesting song sparrow pairs.
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