Harris's Sparrow

Scientific Name
Zonotrichia querula

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Wikipedia Article

The Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula), is a large sparrow. Their breeding habitat is the north part of central Canada (primarily the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, ranging slightly into northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan). In fact, this bird is Canada's only endemic breeder. In the winter they migrate to the Great Plains states of the United States, from lower South Dakota to upper Texas. The common name of this species commemorates the American amateur ornithologist Edward Harris (1799–1863).
This is species is the largest of the "sparrows" in the family Emberizidae, though other superificially-dissimilar species in the family may slightly exceed them in size. They range in total length from , with a wingspan and weigh from . Among standard measurements, the wing chord is , the tail is , the bill is and the tarsus is . This is a very distinctive looking species. Breeding plumage birds have conspicuous pink bills and black on the crown, face, throat and upper breast, contrasting with grey on sides of the head and neck. The back is brown, overlaid with heavy black streaking. There are two white wing bars. Breeding birds have white lower underparts with some black mottling on flanks. Non-breeding adults are more buffy than gray and brown, with reduced or abscent black markings and often have whitish scalloping on the head and throat. Immatures have less black than all adult plumages, normally marked with a white chin and throat, a black malar stripe and a broad smudgy black breast-band. Juvenile have a brownish crown streaked with black and fine dark streaks and some broader black markings on the underside. Birds moult from July to September. The song of the Harris's Sparrow is usually delivered from a high perch. The song consists a series of one or more clear high wavering whistles followed by another series in higher or lower pitch. They have also been known to call out a strong, metallic chink, as well as some variable musical twittering.
The Harris's Sparrow breeds in stunted coniferous forests and adjacent scrubs, especially areas of the grand boreal forests where stands of spruce abut mossy bogs. They often nest near the northern limit of tree growth in the forest-tundra ecotone. The species migrates mainly through prairies to winter in open woodlands, woodland edges and clearings, hedgerows, dense riparian thickets and around brush piles. The Harris's Sparrow regularly occurs at feeders in suburban and rural gardens during the wintertime.
Males of this species often group together to sign at dusk. In winter flocks, Harris's Sparrows maintain linear dominance hierarchies that determine access to food and roost sites. The most dominant birds are the oldest males which usually also have the largest bibs. If first winter birds have their feathers dyed black, creating an artificially large bib, they rise in the dominance hierarchy. The Harris's Sparrow feeds on the ground, scratching vigorously in the leaves and soil for seeds, pine needles, flower buds, blossoms, insects and spiders. It is usually found in flocks up to several dozen in winter, individuals regularly wandering outside of the "normal" range and turning up in flocks of other sparrow species. Spring migration commences around late February with birds arriving on breeding grounds but May. Sparrows arrive on their wintering grounds as early as late October, though mostly during November. Breeding pairs establish a territory of about . Eggs are usually laid by late June to July. In this species, nests are placed in a well-hidden spot on the ground underneath a thick bush or small conifer or in mossy depression in thick grass clumps. Both parents build a cup nest out of twigs, grass, moss and lichens and line it with fine grasses. From 3 to 5 eggs are laid, being variably greenish or grayish in color with differing degrees of small reddish-brown spot. The incubation stage lasts for approximately 13.5 days. The chicks weigh about upon hatching. The young will fledge in about 8 to 10 days. About 3 weeks after fledging, the young become independent of their parents. The species is arguably the least studied North American sparrow due to its isolated nesting territory. The first nest ever found was discovered 1931 in Churchill, Manitoba by ornithologist George M. Sutton.
The Harris's Sparrow has lived for up to 11 years and 8 months in the wild. Predators at the nest can including varied terrestrial mammals, including arctic ground squirrels and stoats. Harris's sparrows provide an easy target for these predators. Otherwise, northern shrikes, sharp-shinned hawks 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.