Grasshopper Sparrow, Ammodramus savannarum

This sparrow is secretive and inconspicuous except when the male perches on an exposed perch, throws its head back, and belts out its totally unmusical insect-like trill.  The Grasshopper Sparrow inhabits various types of grassland habitats where it mostly stays out of sight, but will fly a short distance when flushed before dropping back into the grass.

Its breeding range extends across southern Canada to southern Maine and into the southern half of the United States. Isolated populations also exist in some western States, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. Northern populations migrate to the southern States, Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean in winter.

In Tennessee, the Grasshopper Sparrow breeds in grassland habitats across the state but is rare or uncommon. It can be found in Tennessee from mid-April until early October, but after the breeding season in August, it is especially inconspicuous.

Description: One of the most distinctive features of this small songbird is its large, rather flat head. The Grasshopper Sparrow has a streaked crown with a central white stripe, a thin complete eye-ring, a pale buffy face, a buffy chest with a white belly, streaked brown upperparts, and a short, slightly rounded tail. Juveniles are similar to adults but have a band of streaks across the breast. Males and females look similar.

Length: 5"
Wingspan: 7.75"
Weight: 0.6 oz

Voice: The song is a very high insect-like buzz, preceded by two sharp tik notes. The second type of song, sometimes delivered in flight, is a long series of short buzzy slurred notes.

Similar Species:

  • Henslow's Sparrow, an uncommon breeding bird in Tennessee, has a streaked chest, an olive-green nape, and two stripes on the lower face.

Habitat: Inhabits prairie grasslands, lightly grazed pastures, old weedy fields, grain fields, hayfields, and airfields, preferably with a high percentage of forbs and patches of bare ground.

Diet: Insects and small seeds.

Nesting and reproduction: Interestingly, recent research found non-parent attendants helping to feed and brood unrelated nestlings. These attendants were unrelated juveniles and adults from neighboring territories that had recently lost their nests.

Clutch Size: Ranges from 3 to 5 eggs, with 4 most common.

Incubation: The female incubates the eggs for 11 to 12 days.

Fledging: Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest in about 9 days.

Nest: The female builds the well-concealed open cup-nest on the ground under vegetation.

Status in Tennessee: The numbers of Grasshopper Sparrows nesting in Tennessee have fluctuated along with the amount of appropriate breeding habitat. In 1975 it was listed as Threatened in the state, then as In-Need-of-Management in 1994, and then de-listed altogether in 2000.

Since the mid-1980s populations appear to have increased, especially in West Tennessee. This sparrow currently breeds in scattered locations across the state and only rarely spends the winter; it usually arrives by mid-April, finishes breeding in August, and is gone by early October.

Fun Facts:

  • There are 12 recognized subspecies of Grasshopper Sparrow: four breed in North America, four are resident in Mexico, Central or South America, and four are resident in the Caribbean.
  • Recent research found that unrelated Grasshopper Sparrows tended 17% of nests. Juveniles from earlier nests and neighboring adults with failed nests would bring food and brood unrelated nestlings.

Best places to see in Tennessee: old fields, scrubby open lands statewide.