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Nelson's Sparrow

Ammospiza nelsoni

Length: 4.75 inches Wingspan: 7.25 inches Seasonality: Migrant / Summer
ID Keys: Gray cheek surrounded by buffy-orange, buffy breast and sides with darker streaks, white belly, gray central crown stripe

Nelson's Sparrow - Ammospiza nelsoniThe Nelson's Sparrow and the Saltmarsh Sparrow were only recently split into two species, having once been both labeled the "Sharp-tailed Sparrow".  The Nelson's is unusual in several ways.  Their breeding distribution is oddly disjunct, with an interior population in the Northern Plains of the U.S. and south-central Canada, and coastal populations on southern Hudson Bay and in the New England area.  Their breeding behavior is also unusual, in that both sexes are extremely promiscuous and fail to form pairs.  Males will sing their mating song, but will breed with any female that is amenable.  Females raise the young alone, and will also mate with multiple males.

Nelson's Sparrows are named after Edward William Nelson, a naturalist who did extensive work in the western US and Mexico, and who also served as the president of the American Ornithological Union for a time.


During the summer breeding season, they are found in freshwater marshes with abundant marsh grasses.  They are primarily found in saltwater marshes during the winter.


Most of the summer diet is insects and spiders.  Insects, spiders, marine worms, snails, and other small invertebrates continue to make up much of the diet in the winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but they will also feed on seeds of grasses and marsh plants.


Usually forages along or near the ground, picking up food items from the ground, foliage, water, and sometimes probing in mud.  Males will sing both from perches and in flight during the summer breeding season.


June and July.  The nest of a Nelson's Sparrow is a cup built of grasses, usually placed on the ground.  The female lays between 3 and 5 eggs, and she alone incubates them.  She also is the only parent to feed the young after the eggs hatch.

Song / Call:

The song of a Nelson's Sparrow is a wheezy hissing p-tsssssshhhuk. They also have a muted metallic tik call. Unlike some species that often perch in a higher and more visible location when singing, male Nelson's Sparrows often sing from the same dense wetland vegetation where they nest, making them a species that is often difficult to observe. They sing both day and night.


An unusual summer distribution, with populations in the extreme Northern Plains and south-central Canada, and a disjunct population along the shores of Hudson Bay and in the New England area.  They winter along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts where they may come into contact with their close cousin the Saltmarsh Sparrow. In South Dakota, Nelson's sparrows are a rare breeding bird in the northeastern part of the state, and a rare migrant in eastern South Dakota.

Interactive eBird map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Nelson's Sparrow sightings

Similar Species:

In South Dakota we're fortunate to have a few other beautiful sparrow species that could potentially be confused with a Nelson's Sparrow. Another out-of-state species is also very similar.

LeConte's Sparrow 27 - Ammodramus leconteii LeConte's Sparrow 12 - Ammodramus leconteii Grasshopper Sparrow 15 - Ammodramus savannarum Saltmarsh Sparrow - Ammodramus caudacutus
Leconte's Sparrow LeConte's Sparrow Grasshopper Sparrow Saltmarsh Sparrow

Conservation Status:

They are possibly vulnerable to habitat loss due to draining of wetlands, but populations are currently holding their own.  They are still found across a modestly broad geographic area and are common in some parts of that range. The IUCN lists the Nelson's Sparrow as a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

September 26th, 2012 - "Bucher Prairie", Minnehaha County, South Dakota - by Terry Sohl

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow - Range Map
South Dakota Status: Rare migrant in the eastern part of the state, and rare breeder in the northeast.

Additional Nelson's Sparrow Images
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 Nelson's Sparrow 1 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 2 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 3 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 4 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 5 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 6 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 7 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 8 - Ammodramus nelsoniNelson's Sparrow 9 - Ammodramus nelsoni