McGILL BIRD OBSERVATORY

PHOTO LIBRARY

Song Sparrow / Bruant chanteur (Melospiza melodia)

  NOTE: This species account has been moved to Piranga to allow for improved comparison among examples.  
The updated profile is located at:  http://www.natureinstruct.org/piranga/view.php/Canada/A5F09E0521019564

 Introductory notes:
A challenging species to age and sex. Sex can be determined only by brood patch / cloacal protuberance during the breeding season.  Some HY/SY individuals can be recognized by their retained juvenile feathers, but since the preformative molt may be complete, individuals lacking juvenile feathers cannot be reliably aged.

 
QUICK TIPS:

1) Look at the tail - uniformly narrow and pointed rectrices OR a mix of narrow and broad rectrices are indicative of HY/SY, while uniformly broad and more rounded rectrices are NOT useful as they are common among both age classes

2) Check the outer primary coverts - they are relatively narrow and pointed with minimal gray edging on HY/SY birds, and relatively broad and rounded with reddish-brown edging on AHY/ASY birds

3) Look at the iris in good light - it is grayish-brown in HY birds and chestnut-brown in AHY birds (criterion reliable only in fall)

4) Look at the inner secondaries - on HY/SY birds up to 6 inner secondaries have been replaced and contrast with the more faded and abraded outer secondaries and primaries, while on AHY/ASY birds all secondaries and primaries are of uniform age and wear

Note that some HY Song Sparrows appear to undergo a complete preformative molt, therefore birds in spring that have fully adult plumage should conservatively be aged as AHY rather than ASY.  Some intermediates may also be difficult to age in spring.

Species account updated February 2009

Ageing and sexing guidelines:

January - July:

AHY (ASY) - U
Broad primary coverts with reddish-brown edging; relatively fresh, broad, and rounded rectrices

SY - U
Primary coverts with minimal pale edging; rectrices relatively narrow, pointed, and worn
 

-

June - December:

AHY - U
Reddish-brown edging on the primary coverts; broad and rounded rectrices; chestnut-brown iris
SY - U
Freshly replaced feathers contrasting very sharply with retained juvenal feathers
HY - U
Narrow and pointed rectrices; minimal dull edging on primary coverts; gray-brown iris
JUV - U
Lack of a distinct facial pattern, wing and tail often still growing
 

Ageing and sexing details:

JAN - JUL: after-hatch-year (after-second-year) unknown

Body plumage does not provide any clues to age or sex in Song Sparrows.  Sex can be determined only during the breeding season by brood patch or cloacal protuberance.  The condition of the wing and tail can be assessed to determine age, although by spring the feathers have become worn enough that is often difficult to be certain, and many individuals are better called AHY.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), April 2006
 


Primary coverts are somewhat broader and more rounded than on SY birds, but the distinction is slight.  AHY/ASY birds also tend to have somewhat more pale brown edging along the primary coverts, but again this can be difficult to judge.  Considering this and the potential for some HY birds to undergo a complete preformative molt, most should be called AHY unless they are have clear SY characteristics.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), April 2006


Photo by Peter Pyle, Merry Lea (IN), May 2005


Photo by Peter Pyle, Merry Lea (IN), May 2007


AHY/ASY birds generally have broader rectrices than SY birds, as shown in the second photo below.  However, by spring the tips can be quite abraded, and the feathers often look quite tapered, as for SY birds, and thus tail shape should be used with caution for ageing, and in combination with the wing.  Note too that the presence of growth bars across the tail is NOT useful, as the photo of a known ASY bird below illustrates.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), April 2006


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), April 2006

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

 

JAN - JUL:  second-year unknown

Body plumage does not provide any clues to age or sex in Song Sparrows.  Sex can be determined only during the breeding season by brood patch or cloacal protuberance, while the condition of the wing and tail can be assessed to determine age, although by spring the feathers have become worn enough that is often difficult to be certain, and many individuals are better called AHY.


Photo by Peter Pyle, Southeast Arizona, June 2005


Primary coverts are somewhat narrower and more tapered than on ASY birds, but the distinction is slight.  SY birds also tend to have somewhat less edging along the primary coverts, but again this can be difficult to judge, and as a result many birds in spring should be aged AHY, unless they are particularly distinct.


Photo by Gay Gruner, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), June 2009


Photo by Peter Pyle, San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory (CA), April 2006


 
Photo by Peter Pyle, Southeast Arizona, June 2007


SY sparrows have relatively narrow and tapered rectrices that tend to become abraded rather quickly.  However, as ASY tails can also be quite worn by spring, tail shape should be used with caution, and only in combination with wing molt to determine age. The tail is most useful for ageing in cases where there is a molt limit among the rectrices as in the example below (worn outer four juvenile rectrices contrasting with the fresher replaced central rectrices).


Photo by Gay Gruner, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), June 2009


Photo by Peter Pyle, Spokane (WA), May 2005

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

 

JUN - DEC: after-hatch-year unknown

Body plumage does not provide any clues to age or sex in Song Sparrows.  Sex can be determined only during the breeding season by brood patch or cloacal protuberance, while the condition of the wing and tail can be assessed to determine age.


Photo by Barbara Frei, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2008


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2007


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2004
 


Primary coverts are somewhat broader and more rounded than on SY birds, but the distinction is slight.  ASY birds also tend to have somewhat more pale brown edging along the primary coverts.


Photo by Barbara Frei, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2008


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2007


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2005
 


AHY birds generally have broader and more rounded rectrices than HY birds; the second photo below is of a known AHY bird was taken as it was completing its moult.


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2007


Photo by Barbara Frei, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), October 2008

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JUN - AUG:  second-year unknown

In mid-late summer, it is occasionally possible to age some Song Sparrows as SY.  As all AHY birds will be molting extensively at this time, the key is to look for retained juvenile feathers, which are very pale and contrast sharply with adjacent replaced feathers.  The greater alula and outer primary coverts are likely to be particularly faded and abraded.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005
 


The photo below illustrates a wing in mid-moult, with three secondaries in the process of growing in, and all the inner ones still unreplaced.  Note the very pale old outer primary covert and greater alula, as well as the unreplaced and worn outermost primary.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005
 


The tail is not helpful in diagnosing individuals as SY if it has already been replaced, as in the photo below.  If instead the bird is seen just before replacing the tail, as in the second photo below, the extreme wear can be evident if juvenile rectrices have been retained to this point.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2008

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JUN - DEC:  hatch-year unknown

Body plumage does not provide any reliable clues to age or sex in Song Sparrows, though sometimes HY birds have a somewhat more buffy tinge to their underparts.


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2007
 


Primary coverts are somewhat narrower and more tapered than on ASY birds, but the distinction is slight.  SY birds also tend to have somewhat less edging along the primary coverts, and when present, it is more beige than rusty brown.


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2007


Photo by James Junda, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2008


HY sparrows have relatively narrow and tapered rectrices that tend to become abraded rather quickly.


Photo by Marie-Anne Hudson, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), September 2007


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

JUN - SEP:  juvenile unknown

Juvenile Song Sparrows have sparse streaking on the upper breast, lacking the central breast spot of adults.  The crown is also much less distinctly marked than older birds, and the remnants of the juvenile gape are often still visible at the base of the bill.


Photo by Gay Gruner, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), June 2009


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005
 


The wing is generally dull brown, with the primary coverts having minimal pale edging.


Photo by Gay Gruner, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), June 2009


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005
 


The photo below shows a very young Song Sparrow in the process of growing its tail; once completed it is similar to the HY tail shown above.


Photo by Gay Gruner, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), June 2009


Photo by Marcel Gahbauer, McGill Bird Observatory (QC), August 2005

RETURN TO AGE/SEX OVERVIEW

 

2002- The Migration Research Foundation Inc.