Habitat and Appearance
The swamp sparrows (Melospiza georgiana) are mostly seen in the Eastern U.S and Canada. During breeding season they are close to water and in winter they like similar areas and with more brush and grass. During migration they fly South, and prefer also wet and weedy fields. The swamp sparrow, as it is in the name, will always prefer wet areas such as swamps or marshes.
The swamp sparrow is a small to medium sized sparrow. It has a lighter brown upper body with a whitish throat and belly, with darker brown wings and brown around the eyes. During breeding season, the male sparrow will develop a more prominently colored crown and cap than the female sparrow (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).
The Swamp sparrow is mostly a solitary bird except during migration. When flying South, they may join flocks of other birds that can include birds of other similar species. In non-breeding season, it forms large roosting flocks at night, and smaller flocks during the day. They are not social during breeding season, but otherwise, they may sing together or forage together. When swamp sparrows breed, they form a monogamous relationship and raise 2 or more clutches a year. Both parents help feed and take care of the young. Male swamp sparrows will be aggressive with other males during breeding season or when establishing territory. They also have a tendency to be aggressive with song sparrows, however they are not usually the ones to attack first. A male swamp sparrow may make an aggressive “wing waving” behavior when a male enters their territory. They use different vocalizations to communicate, the chip call note being used most to signal the male not to harass the female when she is around the nest, as well as for mobbing, inter-flock location, alarm, and predator warning (Mowbray, 1997).
Video of Wing Waving:
Swamp sparrows tend to gravitate towards areas with water during mating season, preferring to mate in marshes, swamps, and bogs. They typically begin breeding during mid to late April and continue into early and mid May. Males arrive at the breeding grounds a few weeks before the females do in order to establish their territories. Mate selection occurs usually within a week of the arrival of the female, but not a lot is known about mate selection because female sparrows tend to be more secretive and stealthy birds. Changes in environment can have an effect on where and when breeding occurs. For example, flooding in the spring can delay breeding in areas where the water level will affect their preferred breeding areas. Females will construct the nests around the time that they lay their first egg, sometimes a couple days in advance. In some cases males have been observed to bring material to the female but usually females are responsible for constructing the nest in its entirety. They tend to build their nests in close proximity to the edge of their mate’s territory. Because of their preferred marshy wetland habitat, they have learned to build their nests slightly elevated off of the ground or nestled into a supportive bush. If their nest and eggs are destroyed they will quickly reassemble a new nest and lay a new brood within a day or two. Nests are usually made of twigs, hair, brush, etc (Mowbray, 1997).
Over time, swamp sparrows have adapted well to forage on insects and invertebrates in their wetland habitat. Their longer legs allow them to wade into the shallow water and their smaller beaks aid in their insectivorous diet. Typically they will sort through leaves and lily pads in shallow water to look for insects and invertebrates, and are able to submerge their head under water to turn over leaves. In the winter, their diet becomes more granivorous, feeding on seeds, grasses, and weeds (Mowbray, 1997).
Mowbray, Thomas B. 1997. Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), version 2.0. In The Birds of
North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.
“Swamp Sparrow.” , Identification, All About Birds – Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 2015,