Passerculus sandwichensis – Savannah Sparrow

Phylum: Chordata    Class: Aves    Order: Passeriformes
Family: Passerellidae

Species Status in Canada: “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow subspecies Passerculus sandwichensis princeps, on SARO “Special Concern” list
since 2003 and COSEWIC “Special Concern” list since 2009

digital colour illustration Savannah Sparrow
Passerculus sandwichensis V1, Colour, 2020 © Suzanne M Matheson

Family, Passerellidae:
The Passerellidae family, American or New World sparrows, are a large family of brown or gray, seed-eating passerine birds. The head patterns of many species are distinctive. Their conical, finch-like bills visibly set them apart from the Passeridae, Old World sparrows. New World sparrows are similar in appearance and habit to finches, family Fringillidae, classified by some authorities as Emberizidae, Old World buntings. In the past, this led to Passerellidae sometimes being classified as such. In 2017, the American Ornithological Society split Passerellidae from Emberizidae.

Genus, Passerculus:
Savannah Sparrow was once considered to be the only member of genus, Passerculus; however, recent studies by Birdlife International have established that 5 more species of New World sparrows belong to this category: Baird’s, Belding’s, Henslow’s, Large-billed, and San Benito.

Savannah is a medium-sized sparrow, between 11-17 cm long, with a wingspan from 18-25 cm. Females may be slightly smaller than males and this is the only distinction between the sexes. The body appears plump for the head, often appearing as having a small peak due to flared crown feathers. This slight crest has a whitish stripe running through it. Identification of this species from other similar sparrows is the yellowish front eyebrow. The lores, the region between eye & bill may also be tinged yellow. Apart from the “Large-billed” variety, this species is considered to have a small bill for a sparrow.

Moving along from the head, streaks on the body are neat and crisp, and wings come to a point. Savannah’s belly is white, with undertail coverts clearly defined. Beyond this is a short, notched tail. Compared with Song Sparrow, Savannah has a shorter, less round tail and pinker legs.

There are a number of subtle variations, geographically based, once thought of as separate species. Mainly, the grayish typical variety migrates to and from Southern Ontario.

As a species, P. sandwichensis is common and widespread throughout the Americas. Breeding occurs in the northern half of the United States and all of Canada except the most northerly islands.
Note: “Special concern” variety, Ipswich Sparrow, nests almost exclusively on Sable Island, situated near the edge of the Continental Shelf in the Atlantic Ocean, 290 km off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia.

This sparrow loves grassy habitats. In Southern Ontario, they may be found in old fields, open meadows, pastures, marsh edges, and in particular, alfalfa fields. In summer, further north they favour tundras. Other habitats include salt marshes, prairies, dunes, shores and weedy vacant lots.

Their favoured food, especially in winter are seeds, mainly of grasses and weeds. In summer they add insects to their diet. Except during nesting season, Savannah’s forage in small, loose flocks. They have a number of foraging habits. In summer, you may see them making short flights to catch insects on the wing. Seed foraging involves walking or running on the ground, with occasional scratches in soil & leaf-litter. They also forage in shrubs and low trees.

Not a highly secretive bird, Savannah will perch on weeds or fence wires. It is not uncommon to find them roosting in small compact groups, either in short grass or on the ground. If disturbed, they will fly up into bushes to perch.

These songbirds prefer migrating in small flocks at night. They have a very strong tendency to return each year to the area where they hatched. This is referred to as “natal philopatry”. This tendency makes them a highly suitable candidate for research projects that involve tracking study systems.

digital colour illustration Savannah Sparrow
Passerculus sandwichensis V2, Colour, 2020 © Suzanne M Matheson

While the species is mainly monogamous, polygamy has been observed. Like so many birds, the males sing to defend nesting territory and attract a mate. More distinctive when interacting with a rival or a mate is the male’s slow flutter over grass, with tail raised and feet dangling. During nesting season, females have a number of distraction displays: a low flight with shallow wingbeats, feigned injury with wings and tail spread, and a mouse-like run along the ground.

Life Cycle:
Savannah sparrows have 1-2 broods per year. The nest is hidden in grass at the end of a grassy tunnel. Typically, they lay 4 eggs – whitish, pale tan or greenish, with heavy brown markings concentrated at the large end. In the northern part of their range they tend to have broods of up to 6. After an 8-12 day incubation by the female, altricial and downy hatchlings populate the nest. Both parents feed the nestlings, who leave 8-11 days after hatching. Flight occurs 8-14 days after fledging.

In Ontario, the main threat to P. sandwichensis is habitat loss and modern agricultural practices. Suitable habitat is being reduced by small farms giving way to large monocultures, along with loss of farmland, and other open areas, to development. Savannah sparrows are less likely to use the resulting fragmentation – landscape patches – for nesting, as these small areas make them vulnerable to predators. The early and frequent mowing of developed open areas can destroy nests, eggs, and young.

Open areas not yet given over to development can be managed so as to maintain the Savannah sparrow’s grassland habitat. Such management includes the suppression of successionthe evolution of the structure of a biological community – by means of annual mowing, controlled burns, or light grazing. Such techniques, used periodically and only outside of the nesting season, remove woody growth so that the herbaceous community of plants can thrive. Restoration can be enhanced by mixed planting of tall and short grasses and forbs. Beyond Ontario, wintering sparrows will benefit by the protection of vegetated coastal dunes.

To learn more about:

    • The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, follow COSEWIC
    • Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps): COSEWIC assessment and status report 2009, follow COSEWIC Savannah

Digital Stock Illustrations

digital colour illustration Savannah Sparrow
Passerculus sandwichensis V1, Colour, 2020 © Suzanne M Matheson
digital colour illustration Savannah Sparrow
Passerculus sandwichensis V2, Colour, 2020 © Suzanne M Matheson

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Baicich, Paul J., and Colin J. O. Harrison. Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Ehrlich, Paul R., David S. Dobkin & Darryl Wheye. The Birder’s Handbook A Field Guide to the Natural
History of North American Birds. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1988.

Environment Canada. 2006. Management plan for the Savannah Sparrow, princeps subspecies
(Passerculus sandwichensis princeps), in Canada. Species at Risk Act Management Plan Series.
Environment Canada, Ottawa. iv + 19 pp.

Peterson, Roger Tory. Peterson Field Guild ot Birds of North America. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.

Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Andrew Stewart Publishing, Inc., 2000.

On-line Resources:

Audubon Bird App

“American Sparrow.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Updated on 22 June 2020. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

“Emberizidae bird family.” The editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Updated 19 May 2020. Web. Accessed 11 July 2020.

“Passerculus.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Updated 18 Dec 2019. Web. Accessed 11 July 2020.,6%20species%20in%20the%20genus.

“Passerellidae.” Avian Hybrids An Overview of Hybridization in Birds. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

“Savannah Sparrow.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Updated 13 May 2020. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

“Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis.” New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide. Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, 2020. Web. Accessed 11 July 2020.,be%20used%20by%20savannah%20sparrows.

“Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis.” The Cornell Lab All About Birds.
Copyright by Cornell University, 2019. Web. Accessed 28 April 2020.

“Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps): COSEWIC assessment and status report 2009.” Government of Canada. Updated 04 March 2014. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

“Savannah Sparrow princeps subspecies (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps).” Government of Canada. Updated 19 Aug 2015. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

“Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis princeps): COSEWIC assessment and status report 2009.” Government of Canada. Updated 04 March 2014. Web. Accessed on 11 July 2020.

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