A small oscine, sexually monomorphic in plumage but geographically variable. Definitive Basic and Alternate plumages essentially the same. Top of head with 2 broad black stripes, separated by a broad median white stripe. Eyebrow-stripe white, cut off at lore by black crown-stripe in some subspecies. Narrow black line extends from eye to back of nape. Remainder of face, sides of neck, and breast gray, fading to white on throat and abdomen. Back and scapulars light gray streaked with brown. Rump and uppertail-coverts pale brownish. Wings with 2 white wing-bars. Tail dark brown. Legs grown to flesh-pink. Iris brown. Bill color varies with subspecies, pinkish brown to yellowish (Chilton et al. 1995). See Dunn et al. (1995) for detailed information on identification of subspecies.
For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.
Western Hemisphere Range
In the Bozeman area, normal migration periods are May 5 to 30 and August 20 to October 15, with a peak on September 25.
Necessary habitat features of breeding territories include grass, either pure or mixed with other plants; bare ground for foraging; dense shrubs or small conifers thick enough to provide a roost and conceal a nest; standing or running water on or near territory; and tall coniferous trees, generally on periphery of territory. The first 3 features seem characteristic of nesting habitat of all populations (Chilton et al. 1995).
Main foods taken in winter include seeds, buds, grass, fruits, and arthropods, when available. During breeding season arthropods (principally insects) and seeds are taken (Chilton et al. 1995).
Usually place nest in shrub vegetation above ground. At higher latitude or altitude, nests more likely to be located on the ground. Eggs are ovate, greenish to greenish-blue or bluish in color and marked with reddish brown spots or blotches. Clutch size ranges 3 to 7 eggs (Chilton, et al., 1995). The species nests during June, July and early August.