Peucaea cassinii

Status:  Fairly common erratic regular breeder and spring and fall migrant west and central.

Documentation:  Specimen: UNSM ZM13090 (egg fragments), Jun 1974 Perkins Co (Bray et al 1986).

Taxonomy: This species was recently re-assigned from genus Aimophila to Pucaea (Chesser et al 2010). No subspecies are recognized (Pyle 1997).

Spring:  May 18, 18, 20 (Labedz 1986),22 <<<>>> summer

Although there are few reports, available data indicate that arrival is in late May, with earlier reports 30 Apr 2018 Chase Co and 13 May 2005 Morrill Co.  Migrants pass through Oklahoma in early Apr and the earliest spring date in Kansas is 29 Apr (Dunning et al 2018).

Summer: This species is primarily associated with sand sage (Artemisia filifolia) grasslands in Nebraska, mostly in the southwest and southern Panhandle (Rosche 1994). In the southern Panhandle, however, sand sage occurs in only a few localized areas in the Wildcat Hills and on the Bighorn Escarpment. Cassin’s Sparrow avoids areas that are intensively grazed (Brown and Brown 2001). Summering locales are isolated and erratically-occupied (Mollhoff 2016), except for core areas of extensive sand sage prairie in Dundy, Chase, and Perkins Cos, where it is likely to be found every year, but even here abundance is variable from year to year.  This species has been considered nomadic, even during a given breeding season or to areas outside their normal range, in response to rainfall variations (Dunning et al 2018).  Years of increased abundance in Nebraska, such as 1974 and 2011, occurred during and may be associated with periods of drought in the species’ core breeding range in the southern Great Plains and southwestern United States (U.S Drought Monitor 2018, National Weather Service data).  Breeding bird surveys conducted by Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (2018) of sand sage prairie areas in Dundy, Chase and Perkins counties produced density estimates of 2.4 and 2.8 birds per square km in in 2016 and 2017, respectively.  Density estimates, when multiplied by the size of the study area, generate estimates of overall numbers of 6946 birds in 2016 and 7949 birds in 2017 (Bird Conservancy of the Rockies 2018).

The first confirmed records for Nebraska were in 1974, although birds were reportedly seen around 1970 at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co, but no details were published (Cortelyou 1974). Wyoming’s first record was in 1978 (Faulkner 2010, Faanes et al 1979) and the single record for South Dakota was in 1977 (Tallman et al 2002). Nesting Cassin’s Sparrows were found on the Sejkora Ranch near Grant, Perkins Co 2 Jun-16 Aug 1974 (Cortelyou 1974, Williams 1975); fragments of an unhatched egg were collected (UNSM ZM13090).  One was reported near Benkelman, Dundy Co 7 Jul 1974 (Cortelyou 1974).

Since 1974 sand sage prairies in Dundy, Chase, and Perkins Cos have remained a core area for Cassin’s Sparrow. A notable report from this area was the 33 counted in 6-7 miles of road in Chase Co 11 Jun 2011. One present since 3 Jun was photographed 22 Jun 1989 (Grzybowski 1989). The Benkelman, Dundy Co BBS route has been conducted in 21 years since 1986, and Cassin’s Sparrow has been found in 11 of those years, all since 1999; best counts were 11 in 2000, 8 in 1999, and 6 in 2013 (Sauer et al 2014).

Cassin’s Sparrows have been found in a number of isolated locations north and east of the core southwest range. Most activity has been in Sioux, Garden, Keith, and Lincoln Cos. In 2011 there was a major influx, mostly reflected in increased numbers rather than expansion beyond areas where the species has occurred in recent years. This influx, like the 1974 one, was likely associated with drought in the southwestern United States.

In Sioux Co, two were reported on the Agate BBS route, Sioux Co in 1974, but none until 2018 (Sauer et al 2017, Andrew Pierson, personal communication). At least one was found south of Harrison, Sioux Co 8 Jun 2003, and again there 9 Jun 2012. Nesting occurred at Wind Springs Ranch, Sioux Co in 2008, two summered there in 2010, and two were present 13 Jul. Sioux Co reports elsewhere are 30 May 2010 at Agate, and 4-5 Jul 2010. One was at Toadstool SHP, Sioux Co 8 Jul 2011.

Garden Co hosted its first reports around 1970, when one was seen south of the Crescent Lake NWR near Blue Creek (Cortelyou 1974), and at least one was found north of the refuge at about the same time (Cortelyou 1974). An apparently territorial male was near Lisco 21 May 1986 (Labedz 1986). South of Crescent Lake NWR, 1-3 were seen 2 Aug 2002, one 12 Jul 2004, 1-4 during 19-24 Jun 2010, 3-4 about 18 miles north of Oshkosh 9 Jun 2011, and one 14 Jun 2013. On both 17 Jun 2003 and 30 Jun 2004, at least one was north of Crescent Lake NWR.  Within Crescent Lake NWR, birds have been present in sand-sage or yucca grasslands 3- 7 Jun 2008, during summer 2009, and through 15 Jun 2010, and a BBS route high count there was six on 6 Jul 2011.

In Keith Co a small group of three nests and six displaying males was discovered in Sandhills prairie along an ungrazed abandoned road right-of-way just north of Lake McConaughy, Keith Co in 1993 (Bock and Scharf 1994); adults with a fledgling were found again there 30 Jul and 26 Aug 2006, and 7 Jun 2008, when two males were present, 2-3 were there 13-18 Jun 2011, and one on 29 May 2012. A first record for the Paxton BBS route was of one on 13 Jun 2011; another was there 29 May 2012. There is a Keith Co report for 18 Aug 1974 (Cortelyou 1975).

A group of 5-8 birds was found in Lincoln Co about six miles west of Wellfleet 6-21 Jul 2002; singing males were at presumably the same or a nearby site in 1974 (Cortelyou 1974). In 2011 as many as eight were in a sandhills prairie area south of North Platte 23 Jun-1 Jul 2011, the furthest east location known for the state.  One or two were at the latter location 11 Jun and 21 Jun 2014.

There are several scattered reports from counties not mentioned above in the Panhandle and southwest. Summering has occurred in Box Butte Co (Rosche 1994), where young were being fed by adults near Kilpatrick Lake on 5 Jul 1991 (Grzybowski 1991). Two were found in Arthur Co 13 Jun 2000, and five in southeast Grant Co 2 Jul 2004. One was in Scotts Bluff Co 31 May and 28 Jun 2002, one on 18 Jun 2008, and another was there 22 Jul 2011. In Morrill Co, about eight were found on a BBS route about 10 miles northeast of Dalton 12 Jun 1974 (Cortelyou 1974), two were on the same route 28 Jun 2002, there were sightings in the county 3 Jun and 22 Jun 2011, and two were photographed near Courthouse Rock 15 Jun 2013. Six were on a BBS route in Banner Co in 2011, and in Kimball Co, one was near Exit 1 on Interstate 80 on 15 Jun 2001, a good count of seven was made in the same area 11 Jun 2010, one was there 18 and Jun 2008, and 1-2 were there 13 Jun-19 Jul 2009. Specimens were collected (USNM 568059 and 568060) in sandy grasslands about 3 miles south of Chappell in Deuel Co 12 Jun 1976, where about 10 territorial males were present; no evidence of nesting was noted (Faanes et al 1979). Birds were present at the same site 5 Jun 1979 (Faanes et al 1979). Singing males were in Hayes Co at Hayes Center in 1974 (Cortelyou 1974), and, in Hitchcock Co, it was reported on a BBS route 24 Jun 1977 (Pennington 1978), one was there 3 Jun 1989 (Grzybowski 1989), and singles were at sand sage locations 27 May 2013 and 25 May and 1 Jun 2016.

In addition, there are two recent reports from Cherry Co in 2014, furthest northeastward to date: a singing bird was recorded at Valentine NWR 5 Jun and another was seen just south of NNF McKelvie 15 Jun.

  • High counts:  37 (36 singing) in Chase Co 10 Jul 2006, 34 there 23 Jun 2018, and 33 there 11 Jun 2011.

Fall:  summer <<<>>> Aug 18,27,29

Departure is in early Aug, with few dates available; identification problems of birds away from breeding habitat may contribute to the lack of fall reports, and it is possible that individuals are present somewhat later but are undetected (Dunning et al 2018). Dorn and Dorn (1990) observed breeding Cassin’s Sparrows in eastern Wyoming until 28 Aug, after which none were seen.


BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
NNF: Nebraska National Forest
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SHP: State Historical Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies.  2018.  The Rocky Mountain Avian Data Center [web application], Brighton, Colorado, USA.  Accessed 21 December 2018.

Bock, C.E., and W.C. Scharf. 1994. A nesting population of Cassin’s Sparrows in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Journal of Field Ornithology 65: 472-475.

Bray, T.E., B.K. Padelford, and W.R. Silcock. 1986. The birds of Nebraska: A critically evaluated list. Published by the authors, Bellevue, Nebraska, USA.

Brown, C.R., and M.B. Brown. 2001. Birds of the Cedar Point Biological Station. Occasional Papers of the Cedar Point Biological Station, No. 1.

Cortelyou, R.G. 1974. Cassin’s Sparrow nesting in Nebraska. NBR 42: 56-57.

Cortelyou, R.G. 1975. 1974 (Seventeenth) Fall Occurrence Report. NBR 43: 24-39.

Dorn, J.L., and R.D. Dorn. 1990. Wyoming Birds. Mountain West Publishing, Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA

Dunning Jr., J. B., R. K. Bowers Jr., S. J. Suter, and C. E. Bock.  2018. Cassin’s Sparrow (Peucaea cassinii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Faanes, C.A., B.A. Hanson, and H.A. Kantrud. 1979. Cassin’s Sparrow – first record for Wyoming and recent range extensions. Western Birds 10: 163-164.

Faulkner, D.W. 2010. Birds of Wyoming. Roberts and Company, Greenwood Village, Colorado, USA.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1989. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 43: 1334-1336.

Grzybowski, J.A. 1991. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 45: 1132-1134.

Labedz, T.E. 1986. Cassin’s Sparrow in Garden County. NBR 54: 80-81.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2016. The Second Nebraska Breeding Bird Atlas. Bull. Univ. Nebraska State Museum Vol 29. University of Nebraska State Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Pennington, L.I. 1978. Cassin’s Sparrow. NBR 46: 64.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska.  Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.

Sauer, J.R., D.K. Niven, J.E. Hines, D.J. Ziolkowski, Jr, K.L. Pardieck, J.E. Fallon, and W.A. Link. 2017.  The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966 – 2015 (Nebraska). Version 2.07. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland, USA.

Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.

U.S. Drought Monitor.  2018.  U.S Drought Monitor map – June 28, 2011, accessed 20 Jun 2018.

Williams, F. 1975. Southern Great Plains Region. American Birds 29: 77-81.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2018.  Cassin’s Sparrow (Peucaea cassinii), Version 1.0. In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online