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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Sagebrush Sparrow - Artemisiospiza nevadensis

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3B

Agency Status

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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 Sagebrush Sparrow breeds throughout sagebrush habitats of western North America. Its distribution in Montana is limited to localized populations in southwestern and south-central Montana. This inconspicuous sparrow is often overlooked because it spends much of its time running along the ground between shrubs, often with its tail raised in the air.

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.

In Montana, adults arrive on breeding grounds beginning in late March. Nests with eggs have been observed in mid-June and fledglings have been observed as early as late June through mid-July. It has been recorded in Montana as late as September 1.

Diagnostic Characteristics
The Sagebrush Sparrow is a medium-sized, brownish-gray sparrow with a gray-brown head, thin white eye ring, a white spot in front of eye, and a broad white mustache stripe above a dark mustache stripe. The back is buffy-brown with dusky streaks. The underparts are white, with a central dark spot and dusky streaks on the sides. The outer tail feathers have a thin white edge. Juveniles are duller and more heavily streaked. Males and females are alike in plumage (Martin and Carlson 1998).

Species Range
Montana Range Range Descriptions

All Ranges
(Click legend blocks to view individual ranges)

Range Comments
The Sagebrush Sparrow occurs in contiguous areas of Big Sagebrush, primarily in the southwestern and south-central part of the state. This species prefers tall, dense stands of Big Sagebrush with high vertical and horizontal heterogeneity.

Observations in Montana Natural Heritage Program Database
Number of Observations: 223

(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)

In migration, the Sagebrush Sparrow does not appear to be restricted to sagebrush habitats and will use a variety of open habitats (Rich 1980). Juveniles and adults may form small flocks in late summer before migration (Martin and Carlson 1998, Montana Natural Heritage Program Point Observation Database 2016).

The Sagebrush Sparrow breeds in large, contiguous areas of Big Sagebrush or in sagebrush-saltbush habitats and does not typically occur in seral stage or patchy shrubsteppe (Hansley and Beuvais 2004). Occurrence of the species is positively correlated with sagebrush cover, height, and bare ground and negatively correlated with grass cover (Wiens and Rotenberry 1981). This species prefers to nest in the interior of sagebrush stands and avoids edges (Misenhelter and Rotenberry 2000). Nests are typically placed in tall, live shrubs within the densest sagebrush stands (Hansley and Beauvais 2004).

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
The Sagebrush Sparrow forages on insects and spiders as well as seeds, small fruits, and succulent vegetation. This species forages on the ground near or under shrubs and may glean arthropods from the lower stems and leaves of shrubs (Martin and Carlson 1998).

Territories during the breeding season generally do not overlap, but territory borders can shift slightly from day to day (Martin and Carlson 1998).

Reproductive Characteristics
Nests are typically placed near the center of a large, live shrub, although nests are occasionally placed on the ground (Hansley and Beauvais 2004). Female builds the nest while the male perches and sings nearby. Nest is an open cup made of small twigs or coarse grasses and lined with fine grasses, feathers, fur, or other animal hair. Average clutch size is 3 eggs (range 1-4 eggs). Typically two broods per year. Female incubates eggs between 10-16 days. Nestling period is typically 9-10 days; female broods young. Both parents feed nestlings and fledglings for at least two weeks after the young fledge (Martin and Carlson 1998).

The Sagebrush Sparrow requires large, continuous stands of big sagebrush. Protection and conservation of large, intact sagebrush stands with high structural complexity is critical to maintaining habitats for the Sagebrush Sparrow (Hansley and Beauvais 2004).

Threats or Limiting Factors
Loss or fragmentation of intact sagebrush landscapes due to fire, residential development, or conversion to agriculture will reduce or eliminate habitat for Sagebrush Sparrows during the breeding season (Hansley and Beauvais 2004).

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Citation for data on this website:
Sagebrush Sparrow — Artemisiospiza nevadensis.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from