Melospiza melodia melodia, M. m. montana, M. m. juddi
Status: Common regular spring and fall migrant east and east-central, fairly common west-central, uncommon west. Common regular breeder east and east-central, uncommon west-central, rare casual west. Uncommon regular winter visitor south and east and North Platte River Valley, rare elsewhere.
Documentation: Specimens: montana: UNSM ZM10614, 7 Dec 1910 Crawford, Dawes Co; juddi: UNSM ZM13070, 9 July 1972 Lancaster Co (Cink 1975); melodia: UNSM ZM17018, 5 May 1994 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.
Taxonomy: As many as 52 subspecies have been named, but current authors recognize 24 (Arcese et al 2020, Gill and Donsker 2017), 25 (Patten and Pruett 2009, Clements et al 2016), or 39 (Pyle 1997). Arcese et al (2020) divided the 24 subspecies they recognized into five groups, only one of which, their “Great Basin to Eastern North America” group, contains subspecies likely to occur in Nebraska. This group, referred to as “Chocolate Song Sparrows” by Wright (2019), has the following subspecies: melodia (including juddi and euphonia), breeding throughout the eastern part of the species’ range, except parts of the mid-Atlantic Coast, west through the Great Plains and Prairie Provinces, wintering in the southeast USA south to Florida, atlantica, breeding in Atlantic Coast salt marshes from New York south, and montana, breeding throughout the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin regions from southeast Washington east to north-central Montana and south to eastern California and northern New Mexico, with many individuals resident, but northernmost birds migrating south to Baja California and Sonora in winter.
Two subspecies were listed by AOU (1957) as breeding in Nebraska: eastern euphonia in the Missouri Valley and northern juddi along the northern edge of the state. As outlined above, Arcese et al (2020) merge both euphonia and juddi into eastern melodia, considering the differences between the three merely clinal. A specimen (UNSM ZM 13070) collected by Cink (1975) in Lancaster Co was found by R.B. Payne to be indistinguishable from a series of juddi at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology; Cink concluded that the recent arrival of Song Sparrows in Lancaster Co may have been be due to a southward spread of juddi rather than westward spread of euphonia. Presumably the increasing number of Song Sparrows summering in most of Nebraska away from the north and east are melodia/juddi also, but there is no information available. In Wyoming, Song Sparrows on the eastern plains are melodia (Faulkner 2010, sensu Arcese et al 2020), and so those breeding on the northeastern Colorado plains (Andrews and Righter 1992) are presumably melodia as well. Most of western Nebraska has previously had few if any breeding Song Sparrows until recently (see Summer).
Subspecies montana breeds in the mountains of Wyoming and Colorado but probably occurs as a migrant in the Panhandle, where Bent (1968) stated it occurs “Casually in migration east to Crawford”. This subspecies tends to be more reddish than melodia (Pyle 1997); there have been several westerly Nebraska reports of such birds. Rosche (1982) stated that “very dark reddish-brown birds” occur occasionally during fall migration in the northwest, presumably of “northwestern” races. Three birds which were “dark chestnut with gray napes” were at Cochran Lake, Scotts Bluff Co, 27 Oct 1996; they may have been examples of montana as may have been one near Fort Robinson SHP, Dawes Co 12 Oct 2004 that was “reddish with gray coloration”. One in a Lincoln Co yard 24 Apr 2016 was described as “reddish”. There are several reports from northeast Colorado of montana; a photograph taken 28 Dec 2015 shows a bird resembling melodia but with reddish tones evident (eBird.org, accessed October 2017). Subspecies rufina breeds in southeast Alaska and Queen Charlotte Islands and “some birds move south in winter” (Arcese et al 2020), albeit mostly to the Pacific Coast as far south as northern California (Wright 2019) and thus unlikely to occur in Nebraska. Nevertheless, two have been identified in northeastern Colorado, 29 Apr 2016 and 13 Nov 2016 (eBird.org, accessed October 2017). These birds were strongly rufous, with a buffy wash on lower flanks, heavy russet breast streaking, and some white on the throat. It is possible these northeastern Colorado birds were of the “Rusty Song Sparrow” group sensu Wright (2019), subspecies merrilli, which breeds as far east as central Montana, where its range meets that of montana (Wright 2019).
There is a specimen UNSM ZM7540 (wing 69 mm, tail 76 mm) collected 23 Oct 1890 at Lincoln, Lancaster Co that was identified as an example of fallax, a subspecies with a confusing taxonomic history but currently understood to be resident in southwest Utah and southeast Nevada (Rising 1996; Byers et al 1995, Arcese et al 2020). The range ascribed to it by Baird in his original description included a mix of the currently-understood ranges of fallax and the at-the-time unnamed montana (Arcese et al 2020). Despite the large tail length measurement (76 mm) of the UNSM fallax specimen, we believe this is a long-tailed example of montana, whose tail length reaches 75 mm (Pyle 1997).
The identity of Song Sparrows wintering in Nebraska is conjectural; all subspecies discussed above (melodia/juddi/euphonia, montana/merrilli, and rufina are possible (Bent 1968, Rapp et al 1958). As noted by Wright (2019), however: “… like all non-insular, non-sedentary Song Sparrows, [none] should be identified with certainty in the field away from the core of the breeding areas.” It is also possible that some Nebraska summering birds are resident, particularly juddi, which is at the southern edge of its breeding range in Nebraska.
Spring: Song Sparrow occurs statewide during migration, although it is uncommon westward (Rosche 1994). Arrival and departure dates are difficult to determine due to the presence of wintering and summering birds. Examination of available data suggests however that spring migration is in progress by mid-Mar and is essentially concluded around the end of Apr. The last migrant at Box Butte Reservoir, Dawes Co was noted 5 May 1994 (Rosche 1994). First singing birds in 2012 were in Hamilton Co 11 Mar and at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 14 Mar.
- High counts: 250 at Funk WPA, Phelps Co 18 Apr 1999, 127 in Hall Co 11 May 2002, 76 at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 1 Apr 2017, and 65 at Funk WPA 6 May 2000.
Summer: Available evidence suggests that breeding is a relatively recent phenomenon in Nebraska. Bruner et al (1904) speculated that “a few breed, especially in northern Nebraska,” although no evidence was provided. AOU (1957) stated that subspecies juddi bred in extreme northern Nebraska, citing as locations Sioux County and Dakota City; Sharpe (1967) found nesting Song Sparrows in Sowbelly Canyon, Sioux Co and collected a juvenile. Unfortunately, this juvenile was not identified to subspecies (Cink 1975). Rapp et al (1958) made no mention of breeding, describing Song Sparrow as a “common migrant and winter resident throughout the state”. The first indication of nesting was made by Wood (1965), who found a nest near Plattsmouth; the nest was not conclusively identified as that of a Song Sparrow, however, and may have been that of a Brown Thrasher (Cink 1975). At about the same time an apparently isolated group of summering Song Sparrows was found in the Platte River Valley in Polk Co in 1956 and 1957 by Short (1961). Breeding was first documented in 1972 in Lancaster Co by Cink (1975), who suggested that Song Sparrow was increasing its range as a breeding bird at least partially as a result of the establishment of reservoirs and irrigation infrastructure. Song Sparrows reported on BBS routes 1967-77 were virtually restricted to the east and north, with 86% of the birds in those areas. Mollhoff (2001) showed summer distribution essentially restricted to the east and east-central, but by 2011 (Mollhoff 2016), the range had continued to expand westward by about 100 miles, with reports west to the east edge of the Panhandle. These breeding bird atlas data suggest a westward range expansion, rather than a north-south one as suggested by the presence of juddi Song Sparrows in Lancaster Co (Cink 1975). By 2006, it was “abundant” along the Platte River in Lincoln Co. An “apparent juvenile” was netted at Lake Ogallala, Keith Co 26 Jun 2000 (Brown and Brown 2001). BBS trend analysis shows Song Sparrows have increased 5.36% (95 C.I.; 3.67, 7.06) statewide 1966-2015 (Sauer et al 2017).
Apart from Sharpe’s (1967) discovery of breeding birds in Sioux Co, there have been few recent Panhandle or western Sandhills reports. Rosche (1994) stated that this species is “not at all a common bird anywhere in western Nebraska at any time of the year,” and noted that the “only known habitat in western Nebraska with summering Song Sparrows” was at Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co. Since then, concentrations of reports have been in the Pine Ridge, Scotts Bluff Co, and Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co. Pine Ridge reports increased from around 2010, including the following: 25 May 2014 Gilbert-Baker WMA, Sioux Co, 28 May 2014 Fort Robinson SP, Dawes Co, one at Fort Robinson SP 18 Jun 2016, five at 25 Jun 2016 Toadstool Geologic Park, Dawes Co, 30 Jun 2016 Chadron Reservoirs, Dawes Co, and singles at Fort Robinson SHP 5 and 9 Aug 2017. Singles were in Dawes Co at Chadron SP 18 Jun 2020 and north of Chadron 28 Jun 2020. There are several recent summer reports for Scotts Bluff Co, including one on 9 Aug 2017, five in 2019, and singles in 2020 at Carter Canyon 5 Jun (SMl) and Wildcat Hills NC 22 Jun, but otherwise in the North Platte River Valley westernmost reports are near Oshkosh, Garden Co 19 Jul 2009. Lisco, Garden Co 12 Jun 2018, and at Broadwater, Morrill Co 2 Jun 2016. Five were at Smith Lake WMA, Sheridan Co 1 Jul 2017, three were there 8 May 2014, singles were there 23 May and 15-16 Jun 2018, and singles were there 20 Jul 2019 and 13 Aug 2017. Reports from Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co are 3 Jun 2017, 17 Jun 2006, and 19 Jun 2010, one was found on a BBS route near Dalton, Cheyenne Co 3 Jul 2003, one was along Lodgepole Creek, Cheyenne Co 10 Aug 2017, and one was in Grant Co 7 Jul 2017. The only recent reports from Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co, are of singles there 26 Jun and 27 Aug 2019.
- Breeding phenology:
Singing began 21 Feb 2000 near Ames, Dodge Co
Nest building: 19 Apr-28 May
Eggs: 15 May-8 Jun
Nestlings: 7 May-4 Jun
Fledglings: 10-24 Jun
Fall: Migrants become apparent in early Aug and decline in numbers by late Nov. Before the species became a breeder in the Keith Co area, Rosche (1994) listed an early fall date of 8 Aug. The 40 in Hamilton Co 14 Aug 2011 were probably early migrants. Recent reports from the Panhandle away from the limited known breeding areas are in the period 30 Aug-12 Oct (but see Winter); earlier Aug dates are suggestive of breeding (see Summer).
- High counts: 55 at Harvard WPA, Clay Co 25 Sep 1996, 41 in Lancaster Co 21 Oct 2005, and 40 in Buffalo Co 25 Oct 1998.
Winter: CBC and eBird data (eBird.org, accessed April 2018) show that in Dec most Song Sparrows are on their winter range from the counties in the North Platte and Platte River Valleys southward, except for the southwest corner and the southern Panhandle. Overwintering birds (Jan-Feb) in smaller numbers may occur anywhere in the winter range where open water in the form of springs, seeps, or small streams exists. Elsewhere, mid-winter reports (Jan-Feb) are few; northernmost recent reports are 1 Jan 2020 Boone Co, 5 Jan 2020 Antelope Co, 1 Feb 2019 Dry Creek WMA, Holt Co, 13 Feb 2016 Agate Fossil Beds NM, Sioux Co, 15 Feb 2015 six in Boone Co, and 21 Feb 2011 and 17 Feb 2012 Calamus Reservoir in Garfield Co.
The highest CBC count is 135 at Omaha in 1967; during the 10 years of CBCs 2005-2006 through 2014-2015, average number of Song Sparrows counted was 29.7 at Omaha, 16.1 at Lake McConaughy, and 8.1 at Scottsbluff.
BBS: Breeding Bird Survey
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NM: National Monument
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
SHP: State Historical Park
SL: Sewage Lagoons
SP: State Park
SRA: State Recreation Area
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
WMA: Wildlife Management Area (State)
WPA: Waterfowl Production Area (Federal)
Photograph (top) of a Song Sparrow at Fontenelle Forest, Sarpy Co 10 Oct 2008 by Phil Swanson.
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Birds of Nebraska – Online
Updated 1 Sep 2020