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American Tree Sparrow

(Spizella arborea)
Banded January 5, 1999 - Carmel, Indiana

General Information

The American Tree Sparrow is one of the seven species of Spizella sparrows found in North America. Its name is misleading as they spend little time in trees. Related species include the Chipping, Field, Black-chinned, Brewer’s and Clay-colored Sparrows.

Tree Sparrows breed in Alaska and the northern parts of Canada, and winter across most of the USA. A bird of weedy fields and hedgerows, they are a popular and welcome winter visitor that readily comes to feeders, especially when deep snow covers their preferred food of weed seeds.


The American Tree Sparrow is a medium sized sparrow with a rufous crown, and a clear breast with a central dark spot. It is about 6 inches long with a wingspan of 8.5 to 9.75 inches. Weights range from around 18 to 26 grams. Sexes are similar. Juvenile birds show more streaking on the face and breast.


American Tree Sparrow

Figure 1 - American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

Figure 2 - American Tree Sparrow

The distinctive field mark of the Tree Sparrow is the clear breast with a central black spot like a stick pin tie tack.

Another good field mark is the yellow lower mandible. A rusty line extends behind the eye, and two white wing bars stand out on a warm rusty brown wing.

American Tree Sparrow

Figure 3 - American Tree Sparrow



Figure 4 - Coverts


Covert feathers of an adult bird are rufous, black and white. Adult primary coverts also shown here (right center) have rounded tips.

Adult tail feathers are also rounded.

 Adult Tail Feathers

Figure 5 - Adult Tail Feathers


Juvenile Tail Feathers

Figure 5 - Adult Tail Feathers


Tail feathers of the juvenile bird are more pointed and are often worn and chipped. These are the first set of feathers grown in the nest and will be replaced during the first molt that occurs after the first breeding season.

Nesting Behavior

American Tree Sparrows breed in shrubby habitat along the edges of the tundra and northern tree limit. The nest of grass, weeds, feathers and hair, built by the female, is usually placed on or near the ground at the base of a small tree, shrub or tuft of grass. From 3 to 5 eggs incubated by the female hatch in about two weeks. Both parents care for the young, who leave the nest in 9 to 10 days.

Banding Recoveries

The Bird Banding Lab web site reports that between 1955 and 1997, a total of 404,923 American Tree Sparrows were banded. Of these, 12,751 have been recovered, a recovery rate of 3.14%.

Banding studies show that the American Tree Sparrow can live from 6 to 9 years in the wild. They are short to long distance migrants that winter across most of the USA, and migrate from 1,500 to 3,000 miles to their breeding grounds in Alaska and northern Canada.

If you should recover a banded bird, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND.

Economic Importance &
Conservation Status

Populations of American Tree Sparrows seem to be holding steady but declines are being noticed in some wintering regions. Their Northern breeding habitat is not as impacted by man’s activities as are their wintering grounds.

In addition to the many weed seeds consumed, diet consists of flies, beetles, ants, grasshoppers, other insects and spiders.

These small birds are well adapted to winter habitats and do well in temperatures down to minus 28 °C as long as they can obtain food. Weedy fields left unmowed are important source of food and cover for Tree Sparrows and many other species, especially when snow covers the ground.

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