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Sagebrush Sparrow -
Species of Concern Native Species Global Rank
Agency Status USFWS
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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.
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).
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:
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Map Help and Descriptions
SUMMER (Feb 16 - Dec 14)
Direct Evidence of Breeding
Indirect Evidence of Breeding
No Evidence of Breeding
WINTER (Dec 15 - Feb 15)
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:
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);
Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species' range and habitat requirements;
Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point observation database associated with each ecological system;
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,
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.
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.
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).
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).
Literature Cited Above
Legend: View Online Publication Hansley, P.L. and G.P. Beauvais. 2004. Species assessment for sage sparrow ( Amphispiza belli) in Wyoming. Prepared for the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, Wyoming State Office. Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages. Martin, J.W. and B.A. Carlson. 1998. Sage sparrow ( Artemisiospiza belli). The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Misenhelter, M.D. and J.T. Rotenberry. 2000. Choices and consequences of habitat occupancy and nest site selection in sage sparrows. Ecology 81:2892-2901. Rich, T.D. 1980. Territorial behavior of the sage sparrow: spatial and random aspects. Wilson Bulletin 92:425-438. Wiens, J.A. and J.T. Rotenberry. 1981. Habitat associations and community structure of birds in shrubsteppe environments. Ecological Monographs 51: 21-41. Additional References
Legend: View Online Publication Do you know of a citation we're missing? American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p. Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont. 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. Gillihan, SW. and T. VerCauteren. 2015. Pocket Guide to Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 91 p. Hansen, R.M. 1962. Movements and survival of Thomomys talpoides in a mima-mound habitat. Ecology 43(1):151-154. Hays, R., R.L. Eng, and C.V. Davis (preparers). 1984. A list of Montana birds. Helena, MT: MT Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp. Johnson, N. K. and J. A. Marten. 1992. Macrogeographic patterns of morphometric and genetic variation in the sage sparrow complex. Condor 94:1-19. 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. Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map. Petersen, K. L., and L. B. Best. 1985. Nest-site selection by sage sparrows. Condor 87:217-221. Pitkin, P. and L. Quattrini. 2017. Pocket Guide to Sagebrush Birds. Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Point Blue Conservation Science. 68 p. Saunders, A. A. 1911. A preliminary list of the birds of Gallatin County, Montana. Auk 28:26-49. 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. 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. Watts, C.R. and L.C. Eichhorn. 1981. Changes in the birds of central Montana. Proceedings of the Montana Academy of Sciences 40:31-40. Wright, P.L. 1996. Status of rare birds in Montana, with comments on known hybrids. Northwestern Naturalist 77(3):57-85. Web Search Engines for Articles on "Sagebrush Sparrow"
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