Channel Islands Song Sparrow

©Tim Hauf,

Scientific Name
Melospiza melodia graminea

This small bird, although somewhat difficult to identify due to its inconspicuous marking, is familiar to most birders: the song sparrow is one of the most widespread sparrow species in North America. Though its bland plumage has a wide range of variations, its exquisite voice is easily recognized. The Channel Islands endemic subspecies, M. m. graminea, is found on San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Anacapa Islands. It was a former resident of Santa Barbara Island.

Quick and Cool Facts
  • The song sparrow is found throughout most of North America, but the birds of different areas can look surprisingly different. Song sparrows of the Desert Southwest are pale, while those in the Pacific Northwest are dark and heavily streaked. Song sparrows of Alaska's Aleutian Islands chain are even darker, and they're huge: one-third longer than the eastern birds, and weighing twice as much.
  • Some scientists think that song sparrows of wet, coastal areas have darker plumage as a defense against feather mites and other decay agents that thrive in humid climates.The darker plumage contains more of a pigment called melanin, which makes feathers tougher and harder to degrade than lighter, unpigmented feathers.
  • The song sparrow lives up to its name, being one of the most persistent singers throughout the spring and summer.
  • Other birds such as mockingbirds are not able to effectively imitate their song.
  • They recognize enemies by both instinctual and learned patterns, and adjust future behavior based on both its own experiences in encounters, and from watching other birds interact with enemies.
  • A group of song sparrows are collectively known as a "flock", "choir", and "chorus" of sparrows.
  • The oldest known song sparrow lived to be 11 years, 4 months old.
The song sparrow is medium sized sparrow that has heavily streaked gray-brown upperparts. Its underparts are a dull white that includes a dark central breast spot with thick streaks. Its head has brown crown, paler median stripe, pale gray eyebrow, white chin and a dark brown moustache stripe. It has rust-brown wings and a tail that is long and usually tinged rust-brown. The Channel Islands song sparrow has longer feet, a longer tail and wings, and is also grayer.

The Channel Islands song sparrow is limited to San Miguel and Santa Rosa Island. It is also a transient visitor in the spring and fall to Anacapa Island. It was a former resident of Santa Barbara Island where it was driven to extinction by predation (cats) and habitat destruction brought about by introduced rabbits.

The song sparrow is distributed widely in North America and occur in many different habitat types, most often inhabiting shrubs on moist ground near freshwater, saltwater or coastline. On San Miguel the song sparrow has been found to be most abundant in areas with dense shrubs, and unlike on the mainland, were found in areas well-removed from water, perhaps due to the availability of considerable fog-moisture on San Miguel. Song sparrow use of Santa Rosa habitats was also not tied to water availability. Song sparrows utilized riparian areas but did not prefer them. They strongly selected for coastal sage scrub and grassland, while avoiding chaparral, woodland and pine habitat types.

The song sparrowforages on the ground, in shrubs or in very shallow water. Anecdotal observations from San Miguel Island suggest that its diet is similar to that of song sparrows on the mainland. The year-round diet of song sparrows in California is composed of 21% insects and 79% plant. Insects, such as beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants and wasps, true bugs, and flies. These are an important component of the diet in the spring, when animal prey make up 71% of overall diet versus 3% in September The song sparrow also eats crustaceans and mollusks on the coast.

Song sparrows at San Miguel construct compact, open nest bowls of twigs, herbs, parts of shrubs, weed stems, grass stems, and dry leaves deep, which they line with fine grasses or leave unlined. The nest is typically constructed deep within the nest plant, where they are concealed by the pro­tective canopy from island fox predation. This subspecies also tends to build heavier nests and locate them on the leeward side of a shrub because of the winds. 6The female lays two to six red brown marked, pale green eggs are laid in a cup nest 2 to 4 feet above the ground. Incubation ranges from 12 to 14 days and is carried out by the female who raises up to three broods per season. Both parents are involved in feeding the nestlings that remain in the nest from 9 to 12 days.

Conservation Status
The Channel Islands song sparrow is listed by the State of California as a Species of Special Concern. In addition, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists it under the heading of Birds of Conservation Concern.

Additional Information

  • All About Birds
  • Wikipedia
  • Comrack, Lyann A. and Randi J. Logsdon. 2008. Status Review of the American Peregrine Falcon in California. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
  • Arcese, P., M.K. Sogge, A.B. Marr and M.A. Patten. 2002. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:
  • Coonan, T. J., R. C. Klinger and L. C. Dye. 2011. Trends in landbird abundance at Channel Islands National Park, 1993-2009. Natural Resource Technical Report NPS/CHIS/NRTR—2011/507. National Park Service, Fort Collins, Colorado.
  • Collins, P.W. 1979a. Vertebrate zoology: The San Miguel Island song sparrow. Pp. 10.21-10.24 in Power, D.M., ed., Natural Resources Study of the Channel Islands National Monument. Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, California.
  • Schoenherr, Allan A. and C. Robert Feldmeth and Micheal J. Emerson. 1999. Natural History of the Islands of California. University of California Press. Berkely and Los Angeles, California.
  • Sogge, M. K. and C. Van Riper III 1988. Breeding biology and population dynamics of the San Miguel Island Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia miconyx). Cooperative National Park Resources Study Unit, Technical Report Number 26.

Last updated: June 28, 2016

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