Nelson's Sparrow Ammospiza nelsoni

  • Order: Passeriformes
  • Family: Passerellidae
  • Polytypic: 3 subspecies
  • Authors needed...

The taxonomy of this sparrow has shifted over the years, and so has its name. The Nelson’s and Saltmarsh sparrows were at one time classified together as the Sharp-tailed Sparrow. They were divided based largely on sympatry in coastal North Atlantic marsh sites; and where then given the name Nelson’s Sharp-tailed, and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed sparrows. This mouthful of names just was shortened recently to Nelson’s and Salmarsh sparrows, losing the “sharp-tailed” moniker altogether. These sparrows do have pointed tail feathers, so in a way the tails are sharp. More obvious on the Nelson’s is the warm pumpkin-orange face pattern with a dark post-ocular line and a grey face and dark crown. The breast and flanks are also tawny-orange and lightly streaked, while the warm colored back shows nice white lines (suspenders). Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this sparrow’s lifestyle is that it is non-territorial, and no pair bonds are formed. During the breeding season the males are singing away, full-force, but they are singing just to attract mates, not to defend a territory. When a female is attracted she will mate with a male, but forms no pair bond and she may turn around and mate with various males to fertilize the eggs – the system is truly promiscuous; a relative rarity in the bird world. Due to the fact that so many males are “battling” to fertilize the eggs of a female, they have developed very large testes and produce copious amounts of sperm to compete (maybe outnumber) with the sperm of other males within the female!

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© Charles Duncan

  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding

Recommended Citation

Nelson's Sparrow (Ammospiza nelsoni), In Neotropical Birds Online (T. S. Schulenberg, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. retrieved from Neotropical Birds Online: