New York Status: Special Concern
Federal Status: Not Listed
The vesper sparrow is a large to medium-sized grassland bird that is named for its tendency to sing just before dusk. It is grayish-brown above and whitish below with dark blackish-brown streaking. One of its most distinguishing features is a pale wedge shaped area extending from the malar (cheek area) to the rear of the ear coverts (feathers that cover ear openings). It also has a narrow, white eye-ring and a longer tail than similar sparrows. Sexes are alike and plumage is similar throughout the year.
Juveniles are similar to adults but their plumage contains little to no rufous coloration. It can be distinguished from the song sparrow by larger size, shorter tail, and paler coloration. Additionally, it has a larger, stockier build than the savannah sparrow, while possessing a grayish-brown crown lacking a median stripe.
The vesper sparrow is an early spring migrant with males arriving in New York in late March and females arriving within a week of the males. The nest is built by the female alone. Nests are constructed on the ground often under or at the base of vegetation. It is woven out of grasses and lined with fine grasses, feathers, and hair.
Pairs commonly raise 2 broods per season. Clutches contain 3 to 5 eggs with the female incubating for approximately 13 days, although males may occasionally assist. Young hatch almost featherless and are tended to by both the male and female parents. The male often takes over feeding completely when the female starts the second brood. Fledging occurs at approximately 9 to 10 days old with the young depending on their parents for 20 to 30 days after fledging.
Distribution and Habitat
This species breeding range extends north to south from Alberta, Canada to Central Arizona and east to west from Nova Scotia to Oregon. Its wintering range extends north to south from Central California to Central Mexico and east to west from Florida to California. The vesper sparrow was likely uncommon in Eastern North America prior to European settlement. Populations peaked in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of forest clearing.
They have experienced significant declines as forest regeneration and farmland abandonment progress in the northeast. This species is unique in that it requires patches of bare ground within its breeding territory, making severely disturbed habitats such as reclaimed mines, overgrazed pasture, and row crops potentially suitable.
Habitat preference includes shorter grassland areas, such as
- native prairies
- semidesert forests
In New York it is most commonly found in the Erie-Ontario Plain and the Central Appalachians. The second New York State Breeding Bird Atlas yielded a 49 percent decline in detection from the first atlas. This species is not currently identified as a species of specific conservation need by Partners in Flight, but is listed as Threatened or Endangered in several eastern states including Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. It continues to decline throughout much of its range.
Management and Research Needs
Research is needed to evaluate management practices that could increase habitat. These include prescribed burns, livestock grazing, and mine reclamation. Evaluations of the effectiveness grazing regimens and reclaimed mines have yielded conflicting results.