Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
prepared by Paul Nicholson. October 12, 2021
The Grasshopper Sparrow is a passerine or songbird. In many respects, it is typical of many of our sparrow species, which are sometimes dismissed as “little brown jobs.” The Grasshopper Sparrow however is on our Province’s Species at Risk in Ontario (SARO) list and is characterized as a bird of “special concern” because it is at risk of becoming threatened or endangered due to habitat loss or other threats.
Although Grasshopper Sparrows are indeed small and mostly brown, an observer can confidently move to a positive species identification by noting a few unique field marks. Look for a sparrow with a flattish head, a relatively short tail, a small orangey-yellow patch just in front of the eye, a smudge of yellow on each shoulder, and a plain breast.
The species is well-named, but not because it is tiny or because it hops, but because its most common song, a very distinctive tick-tick-bzzzzzz, actually sounds like some grasshoppers. This is a really useful aspect of the bird too. Birders will most frequently hear the bird before seeing it
Listen to the Grasshopper Sparrow song below:
Grasshopper Sparrow call. Footage courtesy of Benjamin M. Clock, Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Source: Youtube
While the Grasshopper Sparrow is a Species at Risk, we are fortunate that this species does nest in and around the London each spring and summer. It is a grassland bird, and as a class, these birds have been in steep decline across North America since at least 1970 because of the overall loss of this habitat. The SARO website explains that “the grassland habitat that it favours is disappearing as areas are converted to row crops.” This has resulted in less pastureland. “Surveys show that the greatest declines in the species’ populations have occurred in southwestern Ontario. Grasshopper Sparrows prefer to nest in large fields but many of these are becoming fragmented which may attract more nest predators. Another danger is hay cutting if it happens before the young can fly.”
This species was also assigned “special concern” status nationally in 2017 by Canada’s Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada in accordance with the Species at Risk Act.
During its May to August breeding season, you may have success in finding Grasshopper Sparrows at Komoka Provincial Park on both sides of the Thames River, and in the grass fields around the London airport.
The male birds will perch up on a stalk of a plant or on a fence post when they sing. The birds will spend much of their time on the ground however, and will even prefer scurrying around like mice rather than flying. They nest on the ground. Their summertime diet is mostly made up of insects including grasshoppers.
Grasshopper Sparrows overwinter across the southern U.S, in Mexico, and in parts of the Caribbean.
Help make London more Grasshopper Sparrow friendly:
Retrofit your home windows using bird-friendly materials to prevent bird-window collisions.
Keep pet cats indoors or leashed while outside to prevent them from predating on wild birds.
Support the protection of natural habitats that Grasshopper Sparrows need for food, shelter and breeding.
Avoid use of pesticides and reduce your ecological footprint as much as possible.
Distribution of Grasshopper Sparrow in Ontario following Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas from Cadman et al. (2007) Source: COSSARO Ontario Species at Risk Evaluation Report for Grasshopper Sparrow (2014)