The Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri) is a bird of the dry Great Basin Desert. It inhabits sage steppes, montane valleys and mountain meadows across the West, preferring extensive stands of sagebrush. That certainly describes our location in the northwestern corner of California, however, until this year Brewer’s sparrows have only been transient on our property. This summer, a small flock of Brewer’s sparrows had taken up residence in our fields and pastures. Leonard and I are happy to have them around.
A migratory bird that is known for its enthusiastic and varied singing, Brewer’s sparrows leave their summer homes in the sagebrush to winter in the scrub of the southwestern states and as far south as Central Mexico. Outside of the breeding season Brewer’s sparrows will join mixed flocks of other sparrows.
Brewer’s sparrows, like so many other sparrows, have brown streaked upper parts and pale grey underparts. Their distinctive features include a narrow, light-colored eye ring, a pale brown ear patch that has darker borders, a brown crown with fine streaking and a dark malar (under the bill) stripe. One field marking that immediately suggests a Brewer’s sparrow is the lack of streaks on the grey breast. (OK! It is not really that simple because juvenile Brewer’s sparrows do have streaking on their breasts.) The tail is notched and the bill is pale with a dark tip.
The diet of a Brewer’s sparrow consists of insects gleaned from shrubs or caught in the air as well as seeds taken directly from plants or off the ground.
Brewer’s sparrow numbers are slowly declining. The cause of this population reduction is not known, but may be partially due to the destruction of sagebrush habitat by urbanization and expansion of agricultural lands.
The species name, breweri, honors Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814-1880), a contemporary of Audubon, who is probably best known for being a co-author of the three-volume series “A History of North American Birds”.
Currently there are two recognized subspecies of S. breweri, which do differ in appearance, range, song and habitat. Speculation is that in the near future these two subspecies may become separate species.
These photographs were taken on our ranch (Modoc County CA). Leonard provides water for the wildlife in a hedgerow thicket not far from our house. The group of sparrows is near a water container.