Grasshopper Sparrow in Carden

Ron Pittaway

First published in Toronto Ornithological Club Newsletter, May 2019, No 287.


Grasshopper Sparrow by Jean Iron


The Carden Alvar has one of the highest breeding densities of Grasshopper Sparrows in Ontario. The key to finding this uncommon and easily overlooked sparrow is knowing its habitat and insect-like song.

IDENTIFICATION: The Grasshopper is a small short-tailed sparrow with an unstreaked buffy breast. Other sparrows of large open fields such as Vesper, Savannah and Henslow’s are streaked below. Note that female and juvenile Bobolinks are sometimes mistaken for Grasshopper Sparrows.

VOICE: The Grasshopper Sparrow is easiest to find and identify by its high-pitched buzzy song pit-tup shrzzzzzzeeeeee. A second song is a variety of high sizzling notes. It sings persistently from low shrubs, weed tufts, mullein stalks, fence wires, fence posts, and boulders. It often sings throughout the day.

HABITS: This secretive sparrow is difficult to find except when singing or feeding young. In flight it flutters close to the ground before dropping into the grass, or if you’re lucky it perches in view.

HABITAT: The Grasshopper Sparrow prefers large sparsely-vegetated dry meadows with a mix of wildflowers. It avoids damp fields and those overgrown with shrubs.

CONSERVATION: The pratensis subspecies found in Ontario and Quebec is listed as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Like many grassland birds, it continues to decline as more fields are converted to row crops or revert back to woodlands. Light cattle grazing and prescribed burning are important tools for maintaining nesting habitat for Grasshopper Sparrows and other grassland birds.

BEST PLACES: Listening for Grasshopper Sparrows in dry meadows along Wylie Road, Shrike Road and other quiet back roads should produce sightings.

TIP: Older birders often have difficulty hearing the high-pitched song of the Grasshopper Sparrow. If you cannot hear its song, take young birders to the Carden Alvar; they’ll appreciate the transportation and cheerfully point out singing Grasshopper Sparrows!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank Michel Gosselin for proofing and Jean Iron for the photo.