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Harris's SparrowHarris's Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow is the only songbird whose breeding range is exclusively within Canada. A distinctive ground-nesting songbird that breeds in the far northern reaches of Canada, Harris’s Sparrow is the largest sparrow in North America, except for towhees. Although Harris’s Sparrows are relatively numerous and easy to spot within their range, essential aspects of their breeding behavior remained undocumented until the early 1990s. Harris’s Sparrows are most commonly observed on their wintering grounds in the plains of the south-central United States.

Harris’s Sparrows breed in the mixed forest-tundra zones of north-central Canada, from the extreme northwestern reaches of the Northwest Territories to northern Ontario, along the shores of Hudson Bay. Typical breeding habitat includes stands of spruce and larch trees, shrubby understory including dwarf birch and willow, and wet meadows. Harris’s Sparrows winter in the central United States, from South Dakota to south Texas.
Harris's Sparrow Range Map

Because their breeding grounds are remote and their nests well concealed, Harris’s Sparrows were among the last North American songbirds to have its nest and eggs described in published research. Their nests are scrapes in the ground, lined with grasses or, occasionally, caribou hair. Nests are usually concealed under a shrub, atop or beside a hummock. Most clutches consist of four eggs; average clutch sizes are higher in the northern part of the species’ breeding range.

Harris’s Sparrows feed primarily on the ground, taking a great variety of plant and animal matter, including grass seeds, berries, spruce needles and buds, and many species of insects and spiders. At least in portions of the breeding range of the species, Harris’s Sparrows eat proportionally more insects after nestlings hatch.

On their wintering grounds, flocks of Harris’s Sparrows show social hierarchies, in which dominant birds control access to preferred roosts and feeding sites. Status of male birds in hierarchies is correlated with body size. For immature birds in their first winter, status is linked to the extent of black plumage on the throat and upper chest. Only rarely do fights occur between members of flocks; instead, subordinate birds generally move quietly away when birds of higher rank approach aggressively.

Description: A large, long-tailed sparrow. Length is approximately 7.5 to 8 inches. In structure, the species resembles other members of the genus Zonotrichia (including White-throated and White-crowned sparrows, which often associate with Harris’s), with long tail and rather stout head and body.

Breeding adult Harris’s Sparrows have distinctive plumage, with black crowns, faces, and throats. A thin black line extends behind the eye, widening as it curls behind the gray cheek patch. Supercilium and sides of neck are also ash-gray. Rump is also solid gray, contrasting with boldly streaked wings and back. Belly is white. Bill is entirely pink.

Adults lose some of their gray coloration in winter, acquiring more brownish color on the face; throat sometimes shows white in winter. Immature birds in their first winters resemble dull winter adults, but show even more extensive brown on their faces and crowns (very little black at all), and more purely white on their throats.

It's song is a series of one to three high, clear whistles on a single pitch. One common call note is a loud chip; alarm note is somewhat harsher.


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