Zonotrichia capensisrufous-collared sparrow

Geographic Range

Zonotrichia capensis is a neotropical bird that is found from southern Mexico to the southern tip of South America. (Lougheed and Handoford, 1993)


Rufous-collared sparrows are found in most types of habitat from grasslands in eastern South America to high plateaus in the Andes mountain range in the west, including rural and urban habitats. The major exception to this are closed tracts of forested land. They are primarily an edge and open habitat species. These sparrows are found in forested areas when there is a roadway, river, or a clearing to create an opening in the canopy. This species is found in both tropical and temperate environments. (Class and Moore, 2010; Class, et al., 2011; Lougheed and Handoford, 1993)

  • Range elevation
    0 to 5300 m
    0.00 to 17388.45 ft

Physical Description

Rufous-collared sparrows have short grey beaks. They have a greyish-brown streak on the crown of the head with black streaks on either side of the streak. They have a cream to white colored lore and gular region. The side of the head has a black eye line with a grey supercillium and auricular region. The malar region is black. The stomach is a drab grey to white color. The wings and back are predominately brown with some black streaking in it. The wings have a white wing bar. The tail is solid brown. ("Rufous-Collared sparrow", 2004)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    20 to 25 g
    0.70 to 0.88 oz
  • Average length
    15 cm
    5.91 in


Both parents take care of offspring. Males breed opportunistically with other females. (Class and Moore, 2010)

Rufous-collared sparrows live in a wide variety of habitats and the breeding seasons of different populations vary with those habitats.

Rufous-collared sparrows in tropical regions have no one season or time that they breed. There is no good indicator of when an individual or groups of individuals are going to breed. New nests and young individuals have been observed at all times of the year and in all kinds of habitats. These tropical birds only breed once a year and do not re-nest if that clutch fails. The typical clutch size of tropical Zonotrichia capensis is 2 to 3 eggs.

Rufous-collared sparrows in temperate regions have a more seasonal schedule of breeding. They typically breed during the summer months (November to January) when food is more readily available. Clutch sizes are normally 4 to 5 eggs. If a clutch is lost, individuals in temperate populations re-nest immediately.

Time to sexual reproduction is unknown in rufous-collared sparrows, but other Zonotrichia species reach sexual maturity in the year following hatching. (Busch, et al., 2004; Class and Moore, 2010; Class, et al., 2011)

  • Breeding interval
    Most rufous-collared sparrows breed once yearly.
  • Breeding season
    Temperate populations breed seasonally (September to January). Tropical populations may breed at any time of year.
  • Range eggs per season
    1 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 14 days
  • Range fledging age
    9 to 12 days

Males are territorial both before and after hatching. Male provisioning of the young is variable; if it is more beneficial for the male’s fitness to be territorial or breed with another female, it will do that instead of help provision offspring. These behaviors vary among temperate and tropical populations and may depend on resource availability. Females provision and protect their young until they are independent. (Class and Moore, 2010)

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


The lifespan of Zonotrichia capensis is not known, but its close relatives can live from 10 to 13 years in the wild. (M.K and A.G, 1987)


Rufous-collared sparrows are unique in their highly variable behaviors. There are over 20 sub-species that differ slightly in behavior. Some migrate yearly other subspecies are resident year round. Rufous-collared sparrows change their feeding behavior based on the food source available at certain times of the year. The most consistent food source is seeds, but when insect populations are high they will switch to eating insects. Some males spend more time helping raise the offspring while others breed with other females. (Class and Moore, 2010; Class, et al., 2011)

Home Range

Home range size varies widely. Rufous-collared sparrows are territorial when they have young, but the territory varies in size depending on resource availability. (Class and Moore, 2010)

Communication and Perception

Rufous-collared sparrows use lower frequencie songs, which may travel farther, in open areas than in wooded areas, where higher frequency sounds are used. The trill length is fastest in smaller subspecies compared to larger subspecies. These trill dialects are thought to be learned rather than determined by size. (Handford and Lougheed, 1991)

Food Habits

Rufous-collared sparrow diets consist of 80% seeds and 20% insects. Their diets change in early spring or summer, when insect populations increase. At that time (November to January) insects can account for up 40 to 60% of their diet. Rufous-collared sparrows compensate for different diets by how much grit they consume and stores in their gizzards. When the predominant foods are seeds, the gizzard has significantly more grit in it than when insects make up 50% of the diet. Grit is needed to break down seeds more than it is needed to break down insects. (Lopez-Calleja, et al., 2000; Novoa, et al., 1996)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts


Rufous-collared sparrows are particularly susceptible to nest predation. This is due to the open cup style of their nest. Individuals are cryptically colored, which may help protect them from some predation. (Auer, et al., 2007)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Shiny cowbirds (Molothrus bonariensis) are nest parasites of rufous-collared sparrows. (Massoni and Reboreda, 2002)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Rufous-collared sparrows are important for research because of their ability to live in a wide range of environments. This species is not important to ecotourism, like other tropical birds, because they are common throughout rural and urban environments and are not brilliantly colored. (Cueto, et al., 2006; Olson and Alvarenga, 2006)

  • Positive Impacts
  • research and education

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Rufous-collared sparrows have been know to eat agricultural seeds from farm fields, although they do not do large amounts of damage to the overall crop. (Cueto, et al., 2006)

Conservation Status

Rufous-collared sparrows are a species of least concern, according to the IUCN.


Steve Pence (author), University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, Christopher Yahnke (editor), University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Adam DeBolt (editor), Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


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.

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.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate


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.

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.


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.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


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).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

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


rainforests, both temperate and tropical, are dominated by trees often forming a closed canopy with little light reaching the ground. Epiphytes and climbing plants are also abundant. Precipitation is typically not limiting, but may be somewhat seasonal.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.


remains in the same area


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


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


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.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate

year-round breeding

breeding takes place throughout the year


2004. "Rufous-Collared sparrow" (On-line). Accessed August 24, 2013 at http://www.planetofbirds.com/passeriformes-emberizidae-rufous-collared-sparrow-zonotrichia-capensis.

Auer, S., R. Bassar, J. Fontaine, T. Martin. 2007. Breeding Biology of Passerines in a Subtropical montane forest in Northwestern Argentina. The Condor, 109: 321=333.

Busch, S., J. Wingfield, I. Moore. 2004. Territorial Agression of a Tropical Passerine, Zonotrichia capensis, in Response to a Variety of Conspecific Intruders. Behaviour, 141: 1173-1188.

Class, A., I. Moore. 2010. Is there a Trade-off between caing for offspring and territorial aggression in tropical male rufou-collared sparrows (Zonotrichia Capensis). Behaviour, 147: 1819-1839.

Class, A., H. Wada, S. Lynn, I. Moore. 2011. The Timing of Life-History Stages Across Latitudes in Zonotrichia Sparrows. The Condor, 113: 438-448.

Cueto, V., L. Marone, J. Lopez de Casenave. 2006. Seed Preferences in Sparrow Species of the Monte Desert, Argentina: Implications for Seed-Granivore Interactions. The Auk, 123: 358-367.

Handford, P., S. Lougheed. 1991. Variation in Duration and Frequency Characters in the Song of the Rufous-collared Sparrow, Zonotrichia Capensis, with Respect to Habitat, Trill Dialect and Body Size. The Condor, 93: 644-658.

Lopez-Calleja, V., M. Soto-Gamboa, E. Rezende. 2000. The Role of Gastolites on Feeding Behavior and Digestive Efficiency in the Rufous-Collared Sparrow. The Condor, 102: 465-469.

Lougheed, S., P. Handoford. 1993. Covariation of Morphological and Allozyme Frequency Characters in Populations of the Rufous-Collared Sparrow. The Auk, 110: 179=188.

M.K, K., F. A.G. 1987.

Longevity records of North American birds: Coerbinae through Estrildidae
. Journal of Field Ornithology, 58: 318-333.

Massoni, V., J. Reboreda. 2002. A Neglected Colst of Brood Parasitism: Egg Puntured By shiny Cowbirds During Inspection of Potential Host Nests. The Condor, 104: 407-412.

Novoa, F., C. Veloso, V. Lopez-Calleja. 1996. Seasonal Changes in Diet, Digestive Morphology and Digestive efficienct in the Rufous-Collared Sparrow (Zonothrichia Capensis) in Central Chile. The Condor, 98: 873-876.

Olson, S., H. Alvarenga. 2006. An Extraordinary Feeding Assemblage of Birds at a Termite Swarm in the Serra da Montiqueira, Sao Paulo, Brazil. Revista Brasileira de Ornitologia, 14: 297-299.