Note: slender bill, buffy malar, and crisp streaks on buffy breast.
  • Note: slender bill, buffy malar, and crisp streaks on buffy breast.

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Lincoln's Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii
Members of this diverse group make up more than half of the bird species worldwide. Most are small. However their brains are relatively large and their learning abilities are greater than those of most other birds. Passerine birds are divided into two suborders, the suboscines and the oscines. Oscines are capable of more complex song, and are considered the true songbirds. In Washington, the tyrant flycatchers are the only suboscines; the remaining 27 families are oscines.
The Emberizidae family is made up of the New World sparrows, longspurs, and some of the buntings. Most forage and nest on the ground. Most emberizids are seedeaters and have short, thick bills adapted for this diet, although they all eat insects and other arthropods at times, and feed them to their young. They are typically monogamous. Females generally build the nests and incubate the eggs and young, but both parents feed the young. Clutches are small, generally three to five eggs. Many of these birds are small, brown, and streaked, and stay close to cover, making identification challenging.
Fairly common winter west, summer east.

    General Description

    The Lincoln's Sparrow is a small, streaky sparrow, similar in appearance to the Song Sparrow, but smaller and paler than the dark Song Sparrows seen in Washington. It has a white or buffy eye-ring and gray head. The breast is buffy and finely streaked, with the streaks often converging into a central spot, in sharp contrast with the belly, which is white and lacks streaks.


    Breeding habitat is in wet, shrubby areas, usually above 3,000 feet. Lincoln's Sparrows are often found around the edges of ponds and marshes, open wet meadows, or other forest clearings with dense shrub cover. Low willow cover with dense ground vegetation is especially preferred. During migration, they can be found in dense, moist thickets, and in the winter, they inhabit grassy, weedy, and brushy areas, especially those with exotic reed canary grass, thistle, and blackberries, often near wetlands.


    They do not join flocks of their own species, but one or two are often found flocking with other sparrows in winter and during migration. These secretive birds feed on the ground under cover in dense blackberry tangles and other brush.


    In winter, Lincoln's Sparrows eat mostly small seeds and some invertebrates, occasionally visiting feeders. During the breeding season, they feed mostly on arthropods, especially insect larvae, and eat a small amount of seeds.


    Males defend territories and attract mates by singing. The well-concealed nest is located on the ground, often in very boggy sites, inside a low willow or birch shrub, with dense sedge cover. It is usually sunken into a depression so that the rim is level with the ground. The female builds the nest, an open cup made of grass and sedge, lined with finer grasses and hair. The female incubates the 3 to 5 eggs for 10 to 13 days. Both parents feed the young, which leave the nest at 10 to 11 days. The young are capable of sustained flight within a week of leaving the nest. The parents will continue to tend and feed the young for another 2 to 3 weeks.

    Migration Status

    All populations of Lincoln's Sparrows are migratory, although some summer and winter ranges overlap in New Mexico and Northern California. Migration is extended in both the fall and spring. Many Lincoln's Sparrows migrate through Washington, breeding in the far north and wintering in the south. There are also breeding populations in mountainous parts of the state, as well as wintering populations in western Washington. It is unknown whether the birds that winter in Washington also breed here, or if they come from points north.

    Conservation Status

    While they are common migrants throughout Washington, the breeding population is somewhat localized. Lincoln's Sparrows have fairly specialized breeding habitats, thus habitat preservation is quite important for this species. Wintering habitat also needs protection. Some eastern populations have experienced declines in recent years, but western populations of Lincoln's Sparrows appear to be stable or increasing.

    When and Where to Find in Washington

    Lincoln's Sparrows are common breeders at high elevations in the northeastern corner of Washington. As migrants they are common throughout the state in appropriate habitat. Wintering birds are regular west of the Cascades, but are not typically found east of the mountains.

    Abundance Code DefinitionsAbundance

    C=Common; F=Fairly Common; U=Uncommon; R=Rare; I=Irregular
    Pacific Northwest CoastUUUFR RFFUU
    Puget TroughFFFFR RFFFF
    North CascadesRRRUFFFFFRRR
    West CascadesFFFFFFFFFFFF
    East Cascades RFFFFFFUR
    Okanogan UFFFFFF
    Canadian Rockies UUUUU
    Blue Mountains UFFFFFUR
    Columbia PlateauRRRUU UUURR

    Washington Range Map

    North American Range Map

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    Federal Endangered Species ListAudubon/American Bird Conservancy Watch ListState Endangered Species ListAudubon Washington Vulnerable Birds List

    View full list of Washington State's Species of Special Concern