New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed
The grasshopper sparrow gets its name not so much from its diet but from its song which is one or two chips followed by a buzzy insect-like trill. This secretive grassland sparrow is more often heard than seen and remains hidden in dense grass cover. It perches on vegetative stalk or shrub while singing. It is a small, stocky sparrow (4-5.5 inches) with a flat head, relatively large bill, and white eye ring. Sexes are similar with gray to brown coloring above, buff colored sides and breast, and a short tail. The dark crown has a pale to white stripe down the center. It is the only grassland sparrow that lacks wing bars and streaking on its breast or sides although the juvenile shows these markings. This species forages for insects while walking or running along the ground.
A late-spring migrant, the grasshopper sparrow returns to breeding grounds in the northeastern states in mid to late May. Because it is a nocturnal migrant, it is rarely seen during migration. Males arrive on breeding grounds 3 to 5 days before females. Once females arrive, pair bonds form and nest construction by the female begins immediately. The nest is built on the ground at the base of a clump of vegetation and consists of a deep cup of stems and grasses with over-hanging vegetation creating a dome with a side entrance. Pairs will raise 2 to 3 broods per year and will construct a new nest each time. Incubation is carried out by the female while the male defends the nest from predators and the territory from intruders.
Parents will not fly directly to or from the nest but walk along the ground when leaving or arriving. Clutch size is 3 to 6 eggs for the first brood with subsequent broods having fewer eggs. Nestlings hatch after 10 to 12 days and are cared for by both parents as well as non-parent females. Young leave the nest after 9 to 10 days but are unable to fly. They run or walk along the ground in dense cover to avoid disturbance. Young of the first brood will leave their natal territories once adults begin feeding nestlings of the second brood.
Distribution and Habitat
A common local breeder throughout much of the United States and southern Canada. Breeding range extends from southern Maine and New England south to northern Georgia, west to Texas and north to Montana, Idaho, and eastern Washington. The grasshopper sparrow depends on dense grasses for foraging and nesting cover. In New York it remains locally common where grassland habitat is available. Upland meadows, pastures, hayfields, and croplands are primary habitats for the grasshopper sparrow.
In the eastern United States, the historic distribution of the grasshopper sparrow was restricted to natural grasslands resulting from fires or flooding. The growth of agriculture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries created more breeding habitat and facilitated the spread of the grasshopper sparrow's range in the northeast. By the mid 1900s, however, loss of lands used for agriculture paired with the growth of development began to take its toll on grasshopper sparrow populations. In New York populations have declined considerably with the loss of grassland and agricultural habitat due to suburban land development and natural plant succession.
Management and Research Needs
Threats to the grasshopper sparrow population in New York include loss of nests due to mowing of fields during the nesting season, the use of pesticides by farmers, and the loss of grassland habitat resulting from development or plant succession. Management practices for preserving and restoring grasshopper sparrow habitat include prescribed burning and mowing and grazing of grasslands and agricultural areas. Management practices at airports have been successful where mowing is postponed until the end of the breeding season. Further research is needed on the winter ecology, distribution, and habitat use of migratory populations.