Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's sharp-tailed sparrow

Geographic Range

Ammodramus nelsoni, or Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows, have three separate distributions within the Nearctic region. One population resides around Hudson Bay in Canada. The other two inhabit both Canada and the United States: one population ranges along the north Atlantic Coast from Quebec down to Maine and the other is in the center of North America, ranging over Minnesota and northwest North Dakota to Alberta and southern Mackenzie River basin in Canada. All populations migrate to winter along the southern Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines. Small numbers are also found wintering in a similar habitat along California’s coast. (Cooper and Beauchesne, 2004; "Ammodramus nelsoni", 2011)


Ammodramus nelsoni prefer grassy areas that are within wetlands. Common sites are freshwater marshes at the edge of woodland lakes, brackish marshes, sedge bogs, and regions between creeks and wet meadows. Willow trees are the preferred nesting site for this species, so they are often found in habitats where these woody plants are abundant. Within these habitats, a water depth between 1 to 10 inches is ideal. Water depths are most important during the breeding season. If a site is too wet or too dry, Ammodramus nelsoni will most likely not live in that location. Ammodramus nelsoni winters in saltwater and brackish marshes. (Cooper and Beauchesne, 2004; "Ammodramus nelsoni", 2011)

Physical Description

Ammodramus nelsoni is noted for its sunny, golden-orange color extending from the eyebrows to the breast, where it is mottled with darker stripes. The sparrow’s gray-striped crown is bordered with dark brown, and the ear coverts are gray. The olive-brown upper body and neck are notably streaked with white or gray. White extends down the abdomen to its brown, tapered tail. They are small birds; weighing in at 19 to 21 g. They measure 11 to 13 cm in length and feature a 20 cm wingspan. The more common Le Conte’s sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii) have a similar appearance to Ammodramus nelsoni. Differences include Le Conte’s sparrows' striped gray napes and more subtle sandy-streaked backs. (Cooper and Beauchesne, 2004; "Ammodramus nelsoni", 2011)

Three subspecies exist, based on location. Two subspecies are found in the United States and one inhabits British Columbia. Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows are sexually dimorphic. Both sexes look similar, but males are slightly larger than females. Juveniles have brown ear coverts and less distinct facial markings. (Cooper and Beauchesne, 2004; "Ammodramus nelsoni", 2011)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    19 to 21 g
    0.67 to 0.74 oz
  • Average length
    127 mm
    5.00 in
  • Average wingspan
    20 cm
    7.87 in


Male sexual behavior is a form of “scramble competition polygyny”. Males will actively survey an area in search for females. Once a female is found, the male will intercept them and attempt to copulate with the female, which is usually a forced mating. One to several males may attempt to mate with a single female at one time, or several males may mate with a single female one after the other in a short period of time. This breeding method suggests that sperm competition is an important factor in this species. Although mating is forced by the male, receptive females will perform a mating invitation display during the time she is building a nest. She will crouch with her tail and bill raised, wings folded and slightly raised, and make no vocalizations. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Ammodramus nelsoni breeds annually during the spring and summer months. Females construct a cup-shaped nest attached to low-lying reeds or willow branches. Location of the nest is critical in habitats where water levels fluctuate, and females must select a height at which nests will not be flooded. Clutches of three to seven eggs are laid in late spring or early summer. The eggs hatch after about 11 days of incubation and 10 days later, the young are able to leave the nest. The young receive continued care from the female for an additional 20 days after fledging, when they become independent. (Cooper and Beauchesne, 2004)

  • Breeding interval
    Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows produce one brood a year.
  • Breeding season
    Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows breed in late spring or early summer
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Average time to hatching
    11 days
  • Range fledging age
    8 to 11 days
  • Average time to independence
    1 months

Females alone build the nest and incubate the eggs. Initially the female broods the nestlings frequently after hatching and then less frequently after 4 to 5 days. Brooding episodes may last up to 14 minutes, but usually are 2 to 6 minutes. Female Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows do not defend the nest if a predator is nearby. They fly off the nest and stay quiet and hidden nearby. When the nestlings are in the fledgling stage, females will give alarm calls to warn their offspring of predators. (Shriver, et al., 2011)

There is very limited data on nestling feeding. It has been observed that young feed almost exclusively on invertebrate prey. Food items are mostly found by the mother in nearby vegetation, mud and water. The male has been observed to occasionally bring food to the nest. Fledgelings remain near their mother who continues to care for them for 20 days post-fledging. (Shriver, et al., 2011)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
    • protecting
      • female
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • female


Using banding data, the maximum observed lifespan is 10 years for males and 6 years for females. (Shriver, et al., 2011)

Estimates of minimum annual survival of adults in 2 cohorts (in New York) were 60.3% and 54.7% in males, and 63.3% and 53.0% in females. Offspring survival into first fall is estimated as 31.1%. In a 2-year study in Rhode Island, tidal flooding caused 60% of egg and nestling mortality. Flooding was also found to be the main cause of egg and nestling mortality in Canada and New York. There is little known regarding causes of adult mortality. (Shriver, et al., 2011)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    6 to 10 years


Ammodramus nelsoni spends most of its time foraging, except during breeding season when males spend large amounts of time singing and searching for females. Foraging birds will run in short spurts, walk, or hop while searching for insects. Ammodramus nelsoni will often run and stop, climb vegetation and survey the area when not foraging. When alarmed, these sparrows will run crouched down with their heads lowered. Most flights are relatively short and local, and their characteristics vary depending on social context, associated behavior, or destination. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Observed meetings between males is usually only when one male actively forces another male off a perch or one male retreats as another approaches. Dominance between males during breeding season has yet to be better understood. A singing male may cease singing when another male approaches or sings nearby, but counter-singing has not been observed. There is a loose dominance hierarchy apparent within different subspecies of Ammodramus nelsoni. In New York, females have been observed fighting with males or chasing them off when the male tries to force the female into mating. Females will often chase males out of the immediate nesting area. They will use threatening calls or displays to ward off males. In New Brunswick, females have been observed to be more passive towards males. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Ammodramus nelsoni is a migratory species that brees in select regions of the northeast half of the United States and near the Hudson Bay in Canada. In fall, this species flies south to marsh habitats across the Gulf Coast or the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. During migration, Ammodramus nelsoni is often observed feeding in groups of 10 to 40 individuals, but at optimal locations they may amass in groups of up to 100. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

  • Range territory size
    0.012 to 0.057 km^2

Home Range

Males are non-territorial. They typically concentrate their daily activities in large overlapping home ranges. Flight paths of males will cross and perching sites are often shared by several males. Male home ranges are estimated to be between 1.2 to 1.6 ha in New Jersey and 3.0 to 5.7 ha in New York. The home range size for males in Canada is unknown, but believed to be much larger than the southern populations. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Communication and Perception

Males use songs to attract females, but unlike many songbirds they do not use this song to establish territory. They often sing in flight. Their most common song can be mnemonically described as 'k-chinnnng doot' and sounds like two short chips with a dry hiss in between. Females use warning calls to alert offspring of danger and threatening calls to ward off males from nests. No observations of female songs have been made. Females also use body posture to communicate willingness to mate. When a female encounters a male and is ready to breed, she may crouch with her tail and bill raised, and hold her wings folded and slightly raised. Like most birds, Ammodramus nelsoni perceives its environment through visual, auditory, chemical, and tactile stimuli. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Food Habits

Ammodramus nelsoni is an omnivore, and procures the bulk of its food from grass stems or on the ground. In warmer months, their diets include insects, spiders, amphipods, and other small invertebrates. During winter months, seeds and grains provide the sparrows' sustenance. (Shriver, et al., 2011)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • terrestrial non-insect arthropods
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Females silently abandon their nests and hide when a potential ground predator comes near. She will give warning calls when dependent young are present and fly within 10 to 15 m of nest. Females return to the nest after the potential predator leaves the immediate nest area. An alarm call may be given when an aerial predator approaches, but typically the sparrows silently find cover. No nest-distraction displays have been recorded. Like most sparrows, their plumage features stripes in shades of brown, gray, and black that blend in well with their grassy environments. Known predators on adults and nests include northern harriers, short-eared owls, fish crows, Norway rats, and garter snakes. Though not confirmed, suspected predators include herons, egrets, glossy ibises, American crows, and black snakes. (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

As omnivores, these sparrows likely affect local seed distribution as well as insect populations. The adults and young also serve as food for several aerial and land predators. Nest parasitism sometimes occurs in Ammodramus nelsoni nests. The only documented brood parasites for this species are brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater). (Greenlaw and Rising, 1994)

Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows do not have any economic benefits for humans.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative effects of Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows on humans.

Conservation Status

The main threat to Ammodramus nelsoni is habitat loss due to human destruction; mostly because of conversion of grassland and marshes for agricultural uses. Because specific water depth is important to the species, it is essential to protect large areas of habitat to make certain that the ideal water conditions are present in at least a few areas within a wetland. Currently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists this species as Least Concern and considers the population to be stable and widespread. However, increasing human development and resulting habitat loss should be monitored closely. As a migratory species, Ammodramus nelsoni is protected under the United States Migratory Bird Act. ("Ammodramus nelsoni", 2011)


Beth Twaddle (author), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Robert Sorensen (editor), Minnesota State University, Mankato, Rachelle Sterling (editor), Special Projects, Catherine Kent (editor), Special Projects.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


a wetland area rich in accumulated plant material and with acidic soils surrounding a body of open water. Bogs have a flora dominated by sedges, heaths, and sphagnum.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.


having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.


animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.


an area where a freshwater river meets the ocean and tidal influences result in fluctuations in salinity.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.


having more than one female as a mate at one time

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


lives alone


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


uses sight to communicate


MN DNR. 2011. "Ammodramus nelsoni" (On-line). Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Accessed April 27, 2011 at

BirdLife International. 2009. "IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Ammodramus nelsoni" (On-line). International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Accessed May 18, 2011 at

Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. 2011. "Nelson's Sparrow — Ammodramus nelsoni" (On-line). Montana Field Guide. Accessed May 01, 2011 at

Cooper, J., S. Beauchesne. 2004. "Nelson's Sharp-tailed sparrow" (On-line). British Columbian Government. Accessed May 01, 2011 at

Greenlaw, J., J. Rising. 1994. Saltmarsh Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). The Birds of North America Online, 112: Online. Accessed May 03, 2011 at doi:10.2173/bna.112.

Shriver, W., T. Hodgman, . Hanson. 2011. Nelson's Sparrow. The Birds of North America (Online), 719: Online. Accessed May 03, 2011 at

Woolfenden, G. 2007. Wintering Distributions and Migration of Saltmarsh and Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrows. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 119: 361- 377. Accessed April 27, 2011 at