The Savannah sparrow is a common winter visitor to Oklahoma but may often be overlooked. When I started writing about sparrows eight or so columns back, I mentioned that many people will call a sparrow a sparrow and leave it at that.
Well, this is one of those sparrows. After reading this column and looking at the photos, it should be a little easier to identify the Savannah sparrow upon seeing it. I see these birds all the time, but that’s probably because I usually attempt to identify every bird I see.
Imagine when you’re driving down a country road in the fall/winter months and you see little brown birds fly from the roadside grass to a barbed wire fence. There are several bird species which do that, and Savannah sparrows are among them, as they frequent grassy areas in search of food. The bird is so named as it was first identified in Savannah, Georgia, by ornithologist Alexander Wilson.
The Savannah sparrow is medium in size for a sparrow. It has a white underneath but is streaked with brown on the sides and breast. It has small yellow stripes that run from just above the eyes to its somewhat small beak. But in winter, the stripe can fade a little bit.
The Savannah sparrow also has a short, notched tail. That is a quick way to distinguish it from the similar-looking song sparrow, which has a fairly long tail. Also, the song sparrow
has a larger beak than the Savannah and has darker and bolder streaking on the sides and breast. It also lacks the yellow eyebrow stripes of the Savannah.
And the Savannah sparrow has a pinkish beak, similar in color to its legs and feet. The bright yellow coloring on the lores also helps to distinguish this bird from the somewhat similar in appearance grasshopper sparrow (future column). The grasshopper sparrow has a much drabber yellow coloring on the lores.
As I mentioned previously, the Savannah sparrow is a winter visitor in Oklahoma. And when I say “winter visitor” referring to birds, that can mean they’re here any- where between September and May. And, I would say Savannah sparrows can be seen in Oklahoma between those months.
Although there are some subspecies of Savannah sparrow that have permanent ranges in California and Mexico, it is mostly a migratory bird. For the most part, it breeds in the northern half of the United States and well up into Canada and Alaska.
It winters in the southern half of the United States — including all of Oklahoma — and well down into Mexico.
Habitat and food
As I mentioned previously, Savannah sparrows frequent grassy areas — fields, roadsides, pastures, meadows and sometimes cultivated fields. It scampers around the grass in search of food, which consists of mostly insects in the warmer months, and seeds in the colder months.
Insects include grasshoppers, beetles, caterpillars and some spiders. Sadly, they rarely visit feeders, but they will occasionally if the feeders are near their preferred habitat, and seed is on the ground. I’ve had a few visit mine over the years, but my feeding station borders a pasture.
Odds and ends
• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that during the breeding season, a female Savannah sparrow must gather 10 times her weight in food to feed herself and her young while nesting, which lasts about eight days. Wow, that’s impressive!
Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at email@example.com.
RANDY’S NATURAL WORLD