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Nelson's Sparrow - Ammospiza nelsoni

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status
PIF: 3

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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
The Nelson's Sparrow is a small sparrow averaging about 5 inches in length. Adults of both sexes are similar in appearance with males larger on average than females. The eyebrow and malar stripe are an obvious orange-buffy color, sharply defined. The ear coverts are gray and the crown is gray striped with brown borders streaked with black. The upperparts are a rich olive-brown and the back is dark with distinct white streaks. The tail is brown and sharply tapered. The breast, flanks and sides are buffy-orange and the abdomen is white. The flanks are faintly streaked and the central breast is unstreaked. The juvenile is similar to the adult in appearance except the crown and ear coverts are brownish rather than gray (Greenlaw and Rising 1994).

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.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Nelson's Sparrows have no central stripe on their dark crown. This characteristic can distinguish Nelson's from similar Le Conte's Sparrows, which do have a distinct pale, central stripe. Another characteristic separating these two species is the lack of striping on the side neck and nape of the Nelson's Sparrow (Greenlaw and Rising 1994).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Western Hemisphere Range


Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 262

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding

Indirect Evidence of Breeding

No Evidence of Breeding

WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
Regularly Observed

Not Regularly Observed


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

The migratory pattern of this species in Montana is poorly known. A general lack of observations limits any educated guess about their migratory pathway within the state. Only 5 observations have been made regarding Nelson's Sparrows during migration in Montana (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Four observations were recorded in May and June and 1 was recorded in August. All observations were made in Sheridan County, Montana where this species is known to occur and breed.

There is very little information about the habitat for this species in Montana, however it is assumed that the habitat is similar to that used in other portions of the species' range. This species prefers freshwater wetlands with dense, emergent vegetation or damp areas with dense grasses (Bownan 1904, Murray 1969, Stewart 1975, Krapu and Green 1978, Knapton 1979, Williams and Zimmer 1992, Berkey et al. 1993). In North Dakota, Nelson's Sparrows were common in Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) stands, occurred at the edges of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) stands, and nested in sprangletop (Murray 1969). In northeastern North Dakota, they nested in thin, sparse grass on a wet alkali flat (Rolfe 1899, Hill 1968).

Nests usually are built in stands of grasses with litter that is persistent from year to year (Greenlaw and Rising 1994). Nests are built on or slightly above the ground in damp areas among emergent vegetation (Murray 1969, Stewart 1975). In North Dakota, Nelson's Sparrows are more abundant in dry years than in wet years (Stewart 1975). In dry years, they nest in the shallow-marsh and deep-marsh zones of wetlands. In wet years, they nest in cordgrass (Spartina spp.) within wet-meadow zones.

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (common or occasional) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2012, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of "observations versus availability of habitat".
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were listed as associated with an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not listed as associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  Common versus occasional association with an ecological system was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species as represented in scientific literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignment of common versus occasional association.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact the Montana Natural Heritage Program's Senior Zoologist.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species' known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2012.  Mammals of Montana.  Second edition.  Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, Montana.  429 pp.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana's amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Food habits information on Nelson's Sparrow is currently unavailable in the state. Information from other areas of the species' range reveal that Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrows eat insects, spiders, amphipods, and other small invertebrates, supplemented in the colder months by seeds and grains. They glean food from ground or from grass stems.

No ecological information regarding Nelson's Sparrows exists for Montana. In general, Nelson's Sparrows nest in colonies and may be non-territorial (Murray 1969, Greenlaw and Rising 1994). However, they do respond to recorded playbacks of songs, which suggests some territoriality (D. R. C. Prescott, personal communication). They are interspecifically territorial with Le Conte's Sparrows (Ammodramus leconteii) (Murray 1969, D. R. C. Prescott, personal communication).

Reproductive Characteristics
It is believed that this species breeds in the state on an annual basis. However, only a single breeding occurrence from 1995 is documented. This observation indicates a brood fledged in August 1995 from extreme eastern Sheridan County near Round Lake. Other observations of singing males have been documented in the vicinity and surrounding area, but no direct evidence of breeding was noted.

No other information on species' reproduction in Montana has been recorded. Information from other portions of the species' range indicates that eggs are laid mostly in late spring and early summer. Clutch size is three to seven (usually three to five). Commonly two broods per year are produced. Incubation lasts about 11 days and is performed by the female alone. Young are tended by the female and leave the nest at 10 days but they are dependent on the female for about 20 days more.

No known active management is ongoing for Nelson's Sparrows in the state. Conservation Reserve Program practices may provide large blocks of suitable habitat for this species in northeastern Montana.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Berkey, G., R. Crawford, S. Galipeau, D. Johnson, D. Lambeth, and R. Kreil. 1993. A review of wildlife management practices in North Dakota: effects on nongame bird populations and habitats. Report submitted to Region 6. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Denver, CO. 51 pp.
    • Bownan, C.W. 1904. Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow in North Dakota. Auk 21:385-386.
    • Greenlaw, J. S. and J. D. Rising. 1994. Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni). In: A. Poole, ed. The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, Species Account Number 112. Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database.
    • Hill, N.P. 1968. Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrow. In: O.L. Austin, Jr., ed. Life histories of North American cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, towhees, finches, sparrows, and allies. Pp. 815-819. Dover Publications Inc., New York, NY.
    • Knapton, R.W. 1979. Birds of the Gainsborough-Lyleton region. Saskatchewan Natural History Society Special Publication 10. 72 pp.
    • Krapu, G.L. and R.K. Green. 1978. Breeding bird populations of selected semipermanent wetlands in south-central North Dakota. American Birds 32:110-112.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Murray, B.G., Jr. 1969. A comparative study of Le Conte's and sharp-tailed sparrows. Auk 86:199-231.
    • Rolfe, E.S. 1899. Nesting of Nelson's sparrow (Ammodramus nelson) in North Dakota. Auk 16:356-357.
    • Stewart, R.E. 1975. Breeding birds of North Dakota. Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, Fargo, North Dakota. 295 pp.
    • Williams, J.D. and M. Zimmer. 1992. First sharp-tailed sparrow South Dakota nesting record. South Dakota Bird Notes 44:84-85.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists' Union. 1957. Checklist of North American Birds. 5th edition. Baltimore: Lord Baltimore Press. 691 pp.
    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1995. Fortieth supplement to the American Ornithologists’ Union Check-list of North American birds. Auk 112:819-830.
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Breckenridge, W.J. 1930. Breeding of Nelson's Sparrow (Ammospiza nelsoni) with special reference to Minnesota. Occasional Paper of the Museum of Natural History, University of Minnesota 3:29-38.
    • Breckenridge, W.J., and W. Kilgore. 1929. Nelson's Sparrow nesting in Minnesota. Auk 46:548.
    • Byrd, M.A. and D.W. Johnston. 1991. Birds. In: K. Terwilliger, coord. Virginia's endangered species: proceedings of a symposium. p. 477-537. McDonald and Woodward Publishing Company, Blacksburg, Virginia.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • DeBenedictus, P. A. 1995. Sharp-tailed sparrow: a parable of field ornithology. Birding 27(4):312-314.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Faanes, C.A. 1981. Birds of the St. Croix River Valley: Minnesota and Wisconsin. North American Fauna 73. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC. 196 pp.
    • Friedmann, H. 1963. Host relations of the parasitic cowbirds. United States National Museum Bulletin No. 233.
    • Greenlaw, J. S. 1993. Behavioral and morphological diversification in Sharp-tailed Sparrows (Ammodramus caudacutus) of the Atlantic coast. Auk 110:286-303.
    • Greenlaw, J.S. and J.D. Rising. 1994. Sharp-tailed sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). In: A. Poole and F. Gill, eds. The birds of North America, No. 112. The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA and the American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, DC.
    • Hanowski, J. M. and G. J. Niemi. 1986. Habitat characteristics for bird species of special concern. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. Paul, Minnesota. Unpublished report.
    • Hanowski, J.M., and G.J. Niemi. 1988. An approach for quantifying habitat characteristics for rare wetland birds. Pages 51-56 in Ecosystem management: rare and endangered species and significant habitats. Proceedings of the 15th annual Natural Areas Conference.
    • Hartley, M.J. 1994. Passerine abundance and productivity indices in grasslands managed for waterfowl nesting cover in Saskatchewan, Canada. M.S. thesis. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. 42 pp.
    • Hartley, M.J. 1994. Passerine abundance and productivity indices in grasslands managed for waterfowl nesting cover. Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference 59:322-327.
    • Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
    • Hendricks, P., S. Lenard, D.M. Stagliano, and B.A. Maxell. 2013. Baseline nongame wildlife surveys on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Report to the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. 83 p.
    • Hotchkiss, N. 1948. Bird records from northeastern Montana. Condor 50:274-275.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1979. Birds of the Great Plains: breeding species and their distribution. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln. 539 pp.
    • Johnson, D. H., and M. D. Schwartz. 1993. The Conservation Reserve Program and grassland birds. Conservation Biology 7:934-937.
    • Joslin, Gayle, and Heidi B. Youmans. 1999. Effects of recreation on Rocky Mountain wildlife: a review for Montana. [Montana]: Montana Chapter of the Wildlife Society.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Maher, W.J. 1979. Nestling diets of prairie passerine birds at Matador, Saskatchewan, Canada. Ibis 121:437-452.
    • Prescott, D.R.C., A.J. Murphy, and E. Ewaschuk. 1995. An avian community approach to determining biodiversity values of NAWMP habitats in the aspen parkland of Alberta. Alberta NAWMP Centre. NAWMP-012. Edmonton, Alberta. 58 pp.
    • Renken, R. B. 1983. Breeding bird communities and bird-habitat associations on North Dakota Waterfowl Production Areas of three habitat types. M.S. thesis. Iowa St. Univ., Ames. 90 pp.
    • Rising, J. D., and J. C. Avise. 1993. Application of genealogical-concordance principles to the taxonomy and evolutionary history of the Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus). Auk 110:844-856.
    • Rising, J.D. 1996. A guide to the identification and natural history of the sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, Inc., San Diego, CA. 365 pp.
    • Roberts, T. S. 1932. The birds of Minnestoa. Vol. 2. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. 821 pp.
    • Salt, W. R. and A. L. Wilk. 1958. The birds of Alberta.
    • Salt, W.R. and J.R. Salt. 1976. The birds of Alberta. Hurtig Publishers, Edmonton, Alberta. xv + 498 pp.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Stewart, R.E. and H.A. Kantrud. 1972. Population estimates of breeding birds in North Dakota. The Auk 89(4):766-788.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85.
    • Zink, R.M., and J.C. Avise. 1990. Patterns of mitochondrial DNA and allozyme evolution in the avian genus Ammodramus. Systematic Zoology 39:148-161.
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Nelson's Sparrow — Ammospiza nelsoni.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from