Sagebrush sparrow (Artemisiospiza nevadensis)

Brown and white plumed sagebrush sparrow perched on a small branch
Sagebrush Sparrow
Category: Birds
Ecosystems: Shrubsteppe
State status: Candidate
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)


If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

The population of sagebrush sparrow in Washington is low. The sparrow is a species of concern because large expanses of big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), its preferred habitat, have been lost or degraded.

Description and Range

Physical description

The sagebrush sparrow is 5 to 6 inches in length. Males and females appear the same. They are generally brownish gray above, with their head being somewhat grayer and their back and wings being more brown. Sides and flanks are light, buffy gray, with dusky streaking. A white spot is in front of the eye, and there is a thin eye-ring. A horizontal white stripe is along the cheek. The underparts are mostly white, and there is a dark spot on the breast. 

Ecology and life history

This is a sagebrush obligate species, typically associated with big sagebrush in eastern Washington. Sagebrush sparrows appear to be sensitive to patch size, and the probability they will use a site is higher in areas with large expanses of unconverted shrubsteppe, typically areas greater than 2,500 acres.

A sagebrush sparrow perches atop a shrub at Whiskey Dick Unit, L.T. Murray Wildlife Area
Sagebrush sparrow at the Whiskey Dick Unit, L.T. Murray Wildlife Area

During the breeding season, this species forages on the ground for insects, spiders, small fruits, and seeds. During the non-breeding season, diet is similar but also includes succulent plant material.

Pairs generally arrive together on breeding grounds. Males sing atop sagebrush in defense of their territory. Nest building in or under big sagebrush begins in mid-March. After an incubation period of 10 to 16 days, the young usually leave the nest 9 to 10 days after hatching. Most females raise two broods per year.

Geographic range

The sagebrush sparrow prefers the sagebrush/bunchgrass shrubsteppe landscapes of the Columbia Basin and is an uncommon migrant and summer resident in the shrubsteppe of eastern Washington. This sparrow migrates to overwintering areas between central California and central Nevada, including as far south as northern Mexico. Population trends in the Great Basin and in individual states (Nevada, Utah) since 1966 are stable, as is the trend in Washington. However, the Washington trend is based on a small sample that may not be reliable. Declining trends have been reported in Idaho (moderate reliability) and Oregon (high reliability). There is no population estimate for Washington.

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of this species, check out NatureServe Explorer

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change


Very limited information is available regarding sensitivity of sagebrush sparrows to climate change, particularly in Washington, and particularly due to recent separation from Bell's sparrow. However, as sagebrush obligates that require relatively intact and undisturbed sage for breeding, sagebrush sparrows are likely vulnerable to any climate changes that affect the extent, quality, and connectivity of sagebrush habitats. Increasing fire frequencies (due to climate change and perpetuated by invasive species, e.g., cheatgrass), warming temperatures, precipitation variability, and drought are likely to contribute to reductions in sagebrush habitat, negatively affecting this species. Sagebrush sparrows may also be physiologically sensitive to warming temperatures; they avoid nesting on hot, southwest aspects, and position nests to maintain airflow (which is hypothesized to ameliorate high temperatures during nesting periods).

Confidence: Low

Exposure to climate change


  • Increased invasive weeds
  • Altered fire regimes
  • Increased temperatures
  • Changes in precipitation
  • Drought
Confidence: Moderate


This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Habitat loss and fragmentation.
    • Action Needed: Protect core areas of habitat; identify degraded habitat for restoration and establish connectivity between core areas.
  • Agriculture and aquaculture side effects
    • Threat: Habitat loss and fragmentation due to agricultural conversion.
    • Action Needed: Protect and restore habitat; evaluate U.S. Department of Agriculture - Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) leases to provide functional habitat on private lands.
    • Threat: Habitat degraded by intensive grazing.
    • Action Needed: Outreach; develop and promote best management practices.
  • Invasive and other problematic species
    • Threat: Habitat degradation.
    • Action Needed: Identify degraded habitat for restoration; control cheatgrass.
  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Landscape-level habitat use.
    • Action Needed: Conduct studies on use of sagebrush patches in landscapes of differing patchiness and connectivity.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about threats posed by climate change to this species.



    Martin, J. W. and B. A. Carlson 1998. Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli). Birds of North America 326: 1-20.

    Vander Haegen, W. M. 2005. Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli). Pp 328 – 329 in T. R. Wahl, B. Tweit, and S. G. Mlodinow (eds.) Birds of Washington: Status and Distribution. Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, OR, USA. 436 pp.

    WDFW publications

    PHS Program

    Other resources