The Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) is a smallish member of the same genus as the familiar Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Lincoln’s Sparrows have nearly as broad a distribution as Song Sparrows. Lincoln’s Sparrows only appear in southeastern states like Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida during migration. They are migratory, breeding in far northern Canada and at upper elevations of the Rocky and Sierra Nevada ranges. Thus, Lincoln’s Sparrows abandon much of their listed range except as passage migrants.
Here in southern California, we see these beautiful little sparrows primarily in winter. Lincoln’s Sparrows do breed as nearby as the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. The winter range of Lincoln’s Sparrow stretches almost all the way south to Panama. Sometimes you can find upwards of 20-30 Lincoln’s Sparrows in a large, loose winter flock.
Identifying Lincoln’s Sparrow
Recognize Lincoln’s Sparrow by its small size, buffy flanks and malar, and the fine streaking on the flanks and breast. These looks almost as though meticulously drawn by a fine mechanical pencil. They have a subtle beauty, with gray in the cheeks and a broad gray collar like a Chipping Sparrow. Except that like seemingly every part of Lincoln’s Sparrow, the faint streaks interrupt the gray collar. The wings show a distinctly reddish tinge, while many of the broader feathers show prominently dark brown or blackish centers. In certain light, the buffy parts can take on almost a greenish hue.
Unlike Song Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows sing a rather long, drawn-out, complex song that is quite bright and beautiful. Song Sparrow got the name, but I think Lincoln’s Sparrow has a lot more “game” in this regard!
Finding Lincoln’s Sparrow
I thought of Lincoln’s Sparrow because we found a few of them recently at Harriet Weider Regional Park. We went there chasing reports of a Clay-colored Sparrow and a Green-tailed Towhee, a among other things. Amongst them were at least three individual Lincoln’s Sparrows, looking diminutive next to their larger cousins.
We saw White-crowned, Golden-crowned and Song Sparrows, both Sooty and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows. We also found Spotted, California and Green-tailed Towhees, and Oregon Juncos. A veritable sparrow smorgasbord! Later, we stopped by San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary and found a Savannah and Vesper Sparrows to complete a big sparrow day!
This photo shows the reddish crown streaking. Notice how the breast streaking coalesces into a “stickpin”, like that of a Song Sparrow. Not all Lincoln’s Sparrows show this mark, however.