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A photo of a Harris's Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula)
Harris's Sparrow

Harris's Sparrow

Zonotrichia querula

The Harris's sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) stands as the largest member of the Passerellidae family, a group of birds commonly referred to as sparrows. This robust bird exhibits a range in length from 17 to 20 cm, a wingspan of approximately 27 cm, and a weight that varies between 26 to 49 grams. Its physical proportions include a wing chord of 7.7 to 9.2 cm, a tail length of 7.6 to 8.8 cm, a bill measuring 1.1 to 1.4 cm, and a tarsus of 2.2 to 2.5 cm.

Identification Tips

In its breeding plumage, the Harris's sparrow is easily distinguished by its pink bill and striking black crown, face, throat, and upper breast, which contrast vividly with the grey sides of its head and neck. The back is adorned with brown feathers and heavy black streaking, and the wings feature two white bars. The lower underparts are white with some black mottling on the flanks. During the non-breeding season, adults display a more buffy appearance with reduced black markings and often exhibit whitish scalloping on the head and throat. Immature birds show less black than adults, typically with a white chin and throat, a black malar stripe, and a broad smudgy black breast-band. Juveniles are characterized by a brownish crown with black streaks and dark markings on the underside.


The breeding habitat of the Harris's sparrow is found in the stunted coniferous forests and adjacent scrubs of northern central Canada, particularly where spruce trees meet mossy bogs. During winter, they migrate to open woodlands, woodland edges, dense riparian thickets, and suburban and rural gardens where they are known to visit feeders.


This species is endemic to Canada for breeding, primarily in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, with some range into northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In winter, they migrate to the Great Plains states of the United States, from southern South Dakota to central Texas.


Harris's sparrows are known for their spring migration beginning in late February, with arrival at breeding grounds by May. They reach wintering grounds as early as late October, with the majority arriving in November and early December. They forage on the ground, often alone or with a mate during the breeding season, and form flocks in winter. Males may group together to sing at dusk, and dominance hierarchies are observed in winter flocks, with older males typically being the most dominant.

Song & Calls

The song of the Harris's sparrow is a series of clear, high, wavering whistles that vary in pitch, usually delivered from a high perch. They also emit a strong, metallic "chink" and engage in musical twittering.


Breeding pairs establish territories of about 2 hectares. Nests are well-hidden on the ground or in mossy depressions, constructed from twigs, grass, moss, and lichens. They lay three to five eggs, which are greenish or greyish with reddish-brown spots. Incubation lasts approximately 13.5 days, and chicks fledge in about 8 to 10 days.

Similar Species

The Harris's sparrow can be confused with the winter Lapland longspur but can be differentiated by its longer tail, lack of white outer rectrices, and the absence of rich rufous in the greater coverts.

Diet and Feeding

The diet primarily consists of seeds, fruits, and larval invertebrates. During the breeding season, seeds of Carex sedges, grasses, and Scirpus bulrush dominate their diet, supplemented by fruits like black crowberry and various Vaccinium species.

Conservation status

The Harris's sparrow is classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN. The population is estimated at about 2 million individuals, but there have been observed declines in annual Christmas Bird Counts, leading to its inclusion on the "Audubon Watchlist." The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but changes in their breeding habitat due to logging, increased wildfires, and soil quality decline, potentially linked to global climate change, may be contributing factors.

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