Sagebrush Sparrow

Brown and white plumed sagebrush sparrow perched on a small branch
Latin name
Artemisiospiza nevadensis
Category
Birds
State status
Candidate

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has designated the sagebrush sparrow as a candidate for state listing. WDFW reviews candidate species for listing as State Endangered, Threatened, or Sensitive (WAC 220-610-110).

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.

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting tool or email us at wildlife.data@dfw.wa.gov.

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

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

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.

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.

The map illustrates potential range and habitat distribution of this species in Washington. For a map of worldwide distribution and other species' information, check out NatureServe Explorer

Map of Washington showing boundaries of the sagebrush sparrow potential range based on its habitat distribution occurring in 14 eastside counties: Adams, Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Franklin, Grant, Kittitas, Klickitat, Lincoln, Okanogan, Spokane, Walla Walla, and Yakima.
WDFW State Wildlife Action Plan

Conservation

WDFW Management Tools

The sagebrush sparrow 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.

The sagebrush sparrow is identified as a “Priority Species” under WDFW’s Priority Habitat and Species Program (PHS). 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.

Resources