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Montana Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Baird's Sparrow - Centronyx bairdii

Species of Concern
Native Species

Global Rank: G4
State Rank: S3B
(see State Rank Reason below)

Agency Status
PIF: 1

External Links

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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.
State Rank Reason (see State Rank above)
Montana populations were declining until recently and the species is declining in most or the surrounding states and provinces.
  • Details on Status Ranking and Review
    Baird's Sparrow (Centronyx bairdii) Conservation Status Review
    Review Date = 12/19/2011
    Population Size

    ScoreU - Unknown


    Range Extent

    ScoreG - 200,000-2,500,000 km squared (about 80,000-1,000,000 square miles)

    Comment255,691 square kilometers based on Natural Heritage Program range maps that appear on the Montana Field Guide

    Area of Occupancy

    ScoreU - Unknown


    Long-term Trend

    ScoreD - Moderate Decline (decline of 25-50%)

    CommentGrassland covertypes have been drastically reduced in Montana since European arrival.

    Short-term Trend

    ScoreD/E - Either stable, or declining with a decline of 10-30% in population, range, area occupied, and/or number or condition of occurrences

    CommentBreeding Bird Survey (BBS) data for Montana is of moderate credibility and shows a 4.3% increase per year or 52% increase per decade between 1999 and 2009 with the confidence interval overlapping zero. However, the 2009 review indicated a very rapid decline during drought years (B = 50-70% decline) and most surrounding states and provinces have declining trends. Across the species' range and in prairie pothole region there is a significant decline of 0.5 or 0.4% per year or ~5% decline per decade, respectively. Thus, the short-term population trend is probably best regarded as declining to possibly stable.


    ScoreF - Widespread, low-severity threat. Threat is of low severity but affects (or would affect) most or a significant portion of the population or area.

    CommentHabitat loss, grazing, and mowing all represent threats to Montana populations.

    SeverityLow - Low but nontrivial reduction of species population or reversible degradation or reduction of habitat in area affected, with recovery expected in 10-50 years.

    CommentGrassland cover structure can recover relatively quickly from grazing and fire and the species does use CRP so would be expected to recover from a population decline within 10-50 years.

    ScopeModerate - 20-60% of total population or area affected

    CommentThreats seem likely to affect 20-60% of grassland habitats species is dependent on.

    ImmediacyModerate - Threat is likely to be operational within 2-5 years.


    Intrinsic Vulnerability

    ScoreC - Not Intrinsically Vulnerable. Species matures quickly, reproduces frequently, and/or has high fecundity such that populations recover quickly (< 5 years or 2 generations) from decreases in abundance; or species has high dispersal capability such that extirpated populations soon become reestablished through natural recolonization (unaided by humans).

    Environmental Specificity

    ScoreB - Narrow. Specialist. Specific habitat(s) or other abiotic and/or biotic factors (see above) are used or required by the Element, but these key requirements are common and within the generalized range of the species within the area of interest.

    CommentNarrow Specialist. Species is dependent on moderately tall and dense grassland.

    Raw Conservation Status Score

    Score 3.5 + 0.0 (geographic distribution) + 0.0 (environmental specificity) + -0.75 ( short-term trend) + 0.0 (threats) = 2.75

General Description
The sexes of Baird's Sparrow are similar in appearance. The top of the head and nape are a rich, strong brownish-yellow, striped with black, especially on the sides of the crown and nape. The sides of the head and neck are pale buff and flecked with black with a narrow line of black spots on the side of the throat. The back feathers are dull black centrally, margined with grayish-white, producing a streaked appearance. The rump is lighter, more buffy. Underparts are white or pale buff on the throat and breast, streaked on the sides, flanks and across the breast with black. The streaks on the breast are sharply defined and form a necklace; those on sides are more diffuse and tinged with rufous. Wing feathers are grayish-brown, coverts are darker centrally, and all are edged with pale rufous. Two wing bars are present but indistinct. The length of the bird is 5.3 to 5.6 inches (13.5 to 14.2 cm), with a wing length of 2.75 to 3.0 in (7.0 to 7.6 cm) and tail length of 2.1 to 2.3 in (5.3 to 5.8 cm). The tail is dull brown or blackish. The middle pair of tail feathers is narrower and more pointed than the others, the outer feathers are narrowly edged with white and dull white terminally, while the other tail feathers are narrowly tipped with dull white or buffy. The bill is light flesh color and darker at the tip. The legs are flesh color, the feet are darker and the irises are brown. In Alberta, the average weight was 17.8 grams for females and 18.9 grams for males (Maher 1979).

The juvenile resembles the adult but with more diffuse markings; the buff of the head and nape is pale (Roberts 1949).

The song is best described as a high, clear jingling of notes. The several clear high "tink" notes are followed by clear musical trill "tik a tl tleeeeee" (Sibley 2000). The call is a high, thin "teep."

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
Field marks include a broad, ochre median crown stripe, a narrow band of fine black streaks across the breast, and outer tail feathers that often look white, especially in flight (Godfrey 1966, Peterson 1980). Two other common species in Montana with which the Baird's Sparrow may be confused are the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwhichensis) and the Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum).

The Savannah Sparrow is more heavily streaked (on both the back and breast), has a complete strong eye-line and mustache stripe, and, usually, a yellowish supraloral (Sibley 2000, Green, et al. 2002). The adult Grasshopper Sparrow has a similarly shaped head and bill, but lacks the striping in the breast and the dark lateral throat stripe, apparent in the Baird's Sparrow. The juvenile Grasshopper Sparrow has streaking on the breast, but as with the adult, lacks the dark lateral throat stripe and distinct auricular patterns of the Baird's Sparrow (Sibley 2000, Green et al. 2002).

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: 5558

(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 extreme dates of Baird's Sparrow in Montana are April and September, represented by only two individual observations, both west of the Continental Divide (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). More common east of the Continental Divide, the majority of observations of the species in the state occur at the earliest in May and the latest in July (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012).

Baird's Sparrows prefer to nest in native prairie, but structure may ultimately be more important than plant species composition. Nesting may take place in tame grasses (nesting has been observed in crested wheat, while smooth brome is avoided) (Sutter 1998). This sparrow has also been found to use drier areas during unusually wet years, and wet areas during unusually dry years (Casey 2000). Because a relatively complex structure is so important for nesting, areas with little to no grazing activity are required.

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 habit information for this species is not available for Montana. Studies in other areas of the species' range indicate that Baird's Sparrows eat seeds, insects, and spiders and forage on the ground (Terres 1980). Nestlings are fed an exclusive diet of insects. In Manitoba, nestlings were fed grasshoppers, crickets and moths (Cartwright et al. 1937, Lane 1968). In Saskatchewan, nestlings ate grasshoppers and spiders (Maher 1979). The adult diet changes substantially between seasons. In the winter, spring and fall, adults mostly eat seeds, whereas during the breeding season, spiders, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, moths and small seeds comprise the diet (Cartwright et al. 1937, Lane 1968).

Ecological information regarding this species in not available for Montana. In general, breeding territories average about 0.4 to 0.8 hectares (Lane 1968, Terres 1980, Martin and Boczkiewicz 1993). Breeding density can range from 0.13 pairs per hectare (Stewart and Kantrud 1972) to 0.41 pairs per hectare (Johnson 1974); density in Saskatchewan was up to 0.27 pairs per hectare (Pylypec 1991). In North Dakota, mammalian predators probably include White-footed Mice (Peromyscus leucopus), Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels (Citellus tridecemlineatus), Short-tailed Weasels (Mustela erminea), Long-tailed Weasels (M. frenata), Least Weasels (M. rixosa), Striped Skunks (Mephitis mephitis), and Coyotes (Canis latrans) (Lane 1968). The remains of a Baird's Sparrow was found by the nest of a Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and in the stomach contents of a Merlin (Falco columbarius) (Lane 1968). Baird's Sparrows do not form winter flocks.

Baird's Sparrows are very rarely parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and most, if not all, of the reported parasitized nests contained eggs. In Manitoba, two of 13 nests were parasitized (De Smet and Miller 1989). The effect of brood parasitism on nesting success is not known.

Reproductive Characteristics
In addition to independent monitoring projects designed to obtain baseline population data and relative species abundance information (at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, for example), Baird's Sparrows have been recorded on Montana's Breeding Bird Survey routes. Otherwise, little information specific to Montana exists regarding Baird's Sparrow reproduction. Direct evidence of breeding has been recorded at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in Sheridan County, at Freezout Lake, and in the Great Falls area (details of these observations are limited) (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Nests with three to five eggs have been observed at Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Nearly one hundred fifty records indicate indirect evidence of breeding, but only ten records of actual nests have been reported (Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). Nesting generally begins in late May and continues through August (Casey 2000). Other species nesting in association with Baird's Sparrow include the Sprague's Pipit (Anthus spragueii), Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus), and Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta) (Casey 2000).

Most reproductive data comes from studies of Baird's Sparrows in other areas of the their range. These studies reveal the breeding season occurs from late May through mid-August in North Dakota, with the peak in early June through late July (Stewart 1975). Males arrive on the breeding grounds first and immediately set up territories; females arrive three to seven days later. Eggs are laid mostly from June to July. Normally, four or five eggs are laid, although three- and six-egg clutches are possible (Lane 1968). Incubation, by the female, lasts 11 to 12 days. The female does all the brooding and for the first two to four days does all the feeding of the nestlings. The young are well feathered when they leave the nest but are not able to fly and are fed almost exclusively by the male. Young leave the nest at 8 to 10 days, hide in grass, first fly at 13 days, and begin to leave the parents' territory at 19 days. The Baird's Sparrow tends to nest in semi-colonial groups of a few pairs. Two broods are often raised; the length of the interval between nests depends on whether or not the pair stays together for both nests. Cartwright et al. (1937) found three double-brooded females: two retained the same mate for both nests and one female switched mates. The females that retained their first mates began laying the second clutch one day after the first brood left the nest; the female that switched mates began laying the second clutch eight days after the first brood departed.

The three types of nests are all located on the ground (Cartwright et al. 1937). The first type consists of tufts of grass held up by a shrub. The tuft is hollowed out with a bottom layer of grass, and the sides of up to five inches (12.7 cm) tall are woven with grass. A second type of nest is located underneath an overhanging tuft of grass, with a small opening located on the side. The most common type of nest is built in a depression in the ground with no overhead concealment. All nests are made of woven dead grass and lined with finer grass, hair and moss. The average dimensions for 11 Manitoba nests were 2.5 inches (6.3 cm) in diameter and 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) deep (Cartwright et al. 1937).

The eggs of the Baird's Sparrow are white and ringed with reddish-brown spots or blotches and are difficult to distinguish from Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) and Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus) eggs. The average size is 19.4 x 14.6 mm (Lane 1968).
Baird Sparrow nests are difficult to locate (Cartwright et al. 1937, Lane 1968). Females hold tight to the nest; they do not flush from the nest until they are almost stepped upon. In one instance, a female did not flush even when a rope was dragged over her (Cartwright et al. 1937). Cartwright et al. (1937) reported that 15% (6 of 40) of the nestlings on his study area did not survive to leave the nest. The major predators were probably small mammals and birds (Cartwright et al. 1937).

Management recommendations specific to the Baird's Sparrow in Montana include: preservation of remaining native grassland habitat; prescription burning of areas to prevent encroachment by woody vegetation; delayed mowing until mid-July or August (later, rather than sooner, if spring weather has been adverse); light grazing; and maintaining vegetative diversity (Casey 2000). Management priorities should include securing scattered patches of forbs, grasses of various heights, and a variety of litter densities in large enough blocks of grassland adequate to support numerous nesting territories (Casey 2000). They are a Species of Management Concern in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Region 6 (USFWS 1995).

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Cartwright, B. W., T. M. Shortt, and R. D. Harris. 1937. Baird's sparrow. Transactions of the Royal Canadian Institute, Toronto 21(2):153-197.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • De Smet, K.D. and W.S. Miller. 1989. Status report of the Baird's sparrow (Ammodramus bairdii). Report to the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. 28 pp.
    • Godfrey, W. Earl. 1966. The birds of Canada. National Museums of Canada, Ottawa. 428 pp.
    • Johnson, D. H. 1974. Mixed prairie III. American Birds 28:1030.
    • Lane, J. 1968. Ammodramus bairdii (Audubon). Baird’s Sparrow. Pages 745-765 in Life histories of North American cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, towhees, finches, sparrows, and allies (O. L. Austin, Jr., Ed.). United States National Museum Bulletin No. 237, Part 2.
    • Maher, W.J. 1979. Nestling diets of prairie passerine birds at Matador, Saskatchewan, Canada. Ibis 121:437-452.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Martin, B. H. and S. Boczkiewicz. 1993. Baird's sparrow and Sprague's pipit population and habitat monitoring at Conservancy preserves in North Dakota. Rodney Johnson Grant Report. 13 pp.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Peterson, R.T. 1980. A field guide to the birds east of the Rockies. Houghton Mifflin Company. 383 pp.
    • Pylypec, B. 1991. Impacts of fire on bird populations in a fescue prairie. Canadian Field Naturalist 105: 346-349.
    • Roberts, T.S. 1949. Manual for the identification of the birds of Minnesota and neighboring states. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 738 pp.
    • Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley guide to birds. National Audubon Society and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY. 544 pp.
    • Stewart, R.E. 1975. Breeding birds of North Dakota. Tri-College Center for Environmental Studies, Fargo, North Dakota. 295 pp.
    • Sutter, G.C. and R.M. Brigham. 1998. Avifaunal and habitat changes resulting from conversion of native prairie to crested wheatgrass: patterns at songbird community and species levels. Canadian Journal of Zoology 76:869-875.
    • Terres, J.K. 1980. The Audubon Society encyclopedia of North American birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. 1109 pp.
    • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management. 1995. Migratory nongame birds of management concern in the United States: the 1995 list. U.S. Government Printing Office: 1996-404-911/44014. 22 pp.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
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    • American Ornithologists Union. 1983. Checklist of North American birds, 6th Edition. 877 PP.
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    • Bergeron, D., C. Jones, D.L. Genter, and D. Sullivan. 1992. P. D. Skaar's Montana Bird Distribution, Fourth Edition. Special Publication No. 2. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena. 116 pp.
    • Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 2017. Pocket Guide to Northern Prairie Birds. Brighton, CO: Bird Conservancy of the Rockies. 98 p.
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    • Clawson, M.R. 199. An investigation of factors that may affect nest success in CRP lands and other grassland habitats in an agricultural landscape. M.Sc. Thesis. Bozeman, MT: Montana State University. 45 p.
    • Davis, C.V. 1961. A distributional study of the birds of Montana. Ph.D. Dissertation. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University. 462 p.
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    • Hendricks, P., S. Lenard, C. Currier, B. A. Maxell, and J. Carlson. 2008. Surveys for grassland birds of the Malta Field Office-BLM, including a seven-year study in north Valley County. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena.
    • 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.
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    • Kantrud, H. A., and R. L. Kologiski. 1982. Effects of soils and grazing on breeding birds of uncultivated upland grasslands in the northern Great Plains. Wildlife Research Report No. 15, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
    • Kantrud, H. S. and R. L. Kologiski. 1983. Avian associations of the northern Great Plains grasslands. Journal of Biogeography 10:331-350.
    • Kantrud, H.A. 1982. Maps of distribution and abundance of selected species of birds on uncultivated native upland grasslands and shrubsteppe in the northern Great Plains. U.S. Dept. Int., Fish and Wildl. Serv. FWS/OBS-82/31. 31 p.
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    • Lenard, S. 2006. Birds of Blaine County, Riparian Point Count Surveys 2005. Report to the Bureau of LandManagement, Havre Field Station, Havre, Montana. Montana Natural Heritage Program, Helena, MT. appendices.
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Baird's Sparrow — Centronyx bairdii.  Montana Field Guide.  .  Retrieved on , from