Zonotrichia querulaHarris's sparrow

Geographic Range

Harris's sparrows (Zonotrichia querula) have wide, but distinct breeding and non-breeding ranges. The breeding range includes north central Canada, the forest-tundra zones of Ontario, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territories. Harris's sparrows follow a fall and spring migration path linking northern Canada and the central United States plain states. During the winter/non-breeding season they range from South Dakota to Texas, usually staying within the central plain states, but occasionally groups wander as far as Florida, Ontario, or California. There are no reported Harris sparrows outside of North America. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)


In the breeding season, Harris's sparrows occupy mixed forest-tundra zones in northern Canada. They seek out shrubby vegetation to shelter their ground scrape nests. Harris's sparrows overwinter in the southern central United States. They are often found feeding in agricultural fields, pastures or scrubby hedgerows. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

Physical Description

Harris's sparrows are the largest sparrow in North America at 19 cm in length. Average mass is 36.4 g with an average wingspan of 26.7 cm. They have a pink bill and a black crown, face and bib that varies by season and age. Harris's sparrows in non-breeding plumage are brown overall with buffy cheeks, black throats (occasionally with a narrow white band), and white bellies. Breeding sparrows have extensive black patches on crown and throat, with gray cheeks. Juveniles look similar to non-breeding adults, but have a white throat with a dark malar stripe and a dark breast band. All ages and plumages feature a postocular patch that can be brown or black in color. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Sibley, 2000)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Average mass
    36.4 g
    1.28 oz
  • Average length
    19 cm
    7.48 in
  • Average wingspan
    26.7 cm
    10.51 in


Both sexes arrive at breeding sites at the same time following migration and males establish territories shortly upon arrival. Pairs form within 7 days, and nest building (on the ground, usually under or near shrubby vegetation) begins in mid June. Harris's sparrows are a monogamous species, but length of pair bond is currently unknown. Some research has shown slight site fidelity, with males more likely to return than females and both are more likely to return to a successful breeding site. It is unknown whether successful breeding pairs reunite in subsequent years. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

Harris's sparrows breed from late May or early June until August. They begin laying their eggs 14 days after arrival to the breeding site. They lay 3 to 5 (4 to 5 average) eggs per clutch, and one clutch per season. The eggs take 13 to 14 days to hatch and chicks are born weighing about 3.1 g. Chicks fledge after 8.5 to 10 days and they reach independence after two more weeks. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1992)

  • Breeding interval
    Harris's sparrows have 1 brood per year.
  • Breeding season
    Harris's sparrows breed from late May or early June to August.
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 5
  • Average eggs per season
  • Range time to hatching
    13 to 14 days
  • Average time to independence
    2 weeks

Nests are built either out in the open or under low shrubbery with minimal insulation, so to keep the egg temperatures in optimum range the female spends long stretches sitting on the nest. Females incubate eggs for about 80% of the day, increasing or decreasing in response to ambient temperature. Both parents feed the nestlings, though first-year breeding males take longer than second-year breeding males to initiate this behavior. Offspring are dependent on their parents for two weeks post fledging. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1993; Norment, 1995; Norment, 2003)

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


The longest known lifespan in the wild is 11 years, 8 months. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    140 (high) months


Though Harris's sparrows form flocks for migration, they are otherwise mostly solitary. Male dominance hierarchies are largely influenced by the extent of black feathering on the throat and chest. When males are together in large groups, such as at breeding sites, they also engage in 'jump fights' to assert dominance. These fights consist of jumping at, pecking, and beating opponents with their wings. However, these fights are usually one-sided as the lower-ranked opponent will often quickly shy away. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Range territory size
    200-300 (high) m^2

Home Range

Territory size for Harris's sparrows ranges from 200 to 300 square meters. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

Communication and Perception

The males sing from exposed perches in their respective territories. Males sing 1 to 3 song types, and their song is not directed solely at females; the males also use song to communicate with each other across territories.

The extent of black "bib" coloration on the throat and breast of male Harris's sparrows communicates rank. Males with larger bibs, regardless of age, are often perceived as higher ranked than males with smaller bibs.

Harris's sparrows perceive their habitat through visual, tactile, auditory and chemical stimuli. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

Food Habits

During the breeding season, Harris's sparrows eat seeds, fruits, arthropods, and conifer needles. During winter and migrations, they limit their diet to seeds and fruit. In general, they are ground feeders and will kick at nearby vegetation with their feet until the seed or fruit falls down to ground level. (Norment, 1995)

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


Known predators include arctic ground squirrels and short tailed weasels which are most prevalent during the breeding season. Since nests are on the ground, Harris's sparrows provide an easy target for these terrestrial predators. Otherwise, northern shrikes and merlins are their main predators.

As an anti-predator adaptation, Harris's sparrows fly up into trees when startled by humans. They duck down to the ground when threatened by other birds. They also produce alarm calls when threatened to alert others. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993; Norment, 1993)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

Harris's sparrows are used as a host by nasal mites Ptilonyssus morofskyi and Ptilonyssus sairae. Several species of feather lice Ricinus hastatus, Ricinus fringillae, Philopterus subflavescens, and Ceratophylus garei are also prevalent. As they are largely seed-eaters, Harris's sparrows are likely an important seed dispersant. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Nasal mites Ptilonyssus morofskyi
  • Nasal mites Ptilonyssus sairae
  • Feather lice Ricinus hastatus
  • Feather lice Ricinus fringillae
  • Feather lice Philopterus subflavescens
  • Feather lice Ceratophylus garei

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

No positive economic importance is known for Harris's sparrows.

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of Harris's sparrows on humans.

Conservation Status

Harris's sparrows are of least concern as their numbers have remained steady. This can likely be attributed to the extreme isolation of their northern breeding grounds where the threat of human disturbance is low. Overwintering habitats are suffering from human development, however the birds have recently become frequent feeder visitors and find adequate food resources to support the population. (Norment and Shackleton, 1993)


Mary Roth (author), Florida State University, Emily DuVal (editor), Florida State University, Rachelle Sterling (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


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.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
dominance hierarchies

ranking system or pecking order among members of a long-term social group, where dominance status affects access to resources or mates


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


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 one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


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.


the regions of the earth that surround the north and south poles, from the north pole to 60 degrees north and from the south pole to 60 degrees south.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


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


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


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.

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.


A terrestrial biome with low, shrubby or mat-like vegetation found at extremely high latitudes or elevations, near the limit of plant growth. Soils usually subject to permafrost. Plant diversity is typically low and the growing season is short.


uses sight to communicate


Norment, C. 1992. Comparative Breeding Biology of Harris’ Sparrows and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows in the Northwest Territories, Canada.. The Condor, 94: 955-975.

Norment, C. 1995. Incubation Patterns in Harris' Sparrows and White-Crowned Sparrows in the Northwest Territories, Canada (Patrón de Incubación de Zonotrichia querula y Z. leucophrys gambelii en los Territorios del Noroeste de Canada). Journal of Field Ornithology, 66: 553-563.

Norment, C. 1993. Nest-site characteristics and Nest predation in Harris’ Sparrows and white-crowned sparrows in the northwest-territories, Canada.. Auk, 110: 769-777.

Norment, C. 2003. Patterns of Nestling feeding in Harris’s Sparrows, Zonorichia querula and White-crowned Sparrows, Z. leucophyrs, in the Northwest Territories, Canada.. Canadian Field Naturalist, 117: 203-208.

Norment, C., S. Shackleton. 1993. Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula). Pp. 1-20 in A Poole, F Gill, eds. The Birds of North America, Vol. 64. Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences.

Sibley, D. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. New York: Chanticleer Press..