Species Spotlight: Henslow’s Sparrow

Get to know some of the species at risk in the Lac Deschênes IBA with the Species Spotlight, aka “Sp-Spot”. Today meet the: Henslow’s Sparrow

Henslow Sparrow Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Henslow Sparrow
Photo by Kenneth Cole Schneider

Scientific Name: Ammodramus henslowii
SARA status: Endangered
Taxonomic Group: Birds
Size: length of 13 cm

Henslow’s Sparrow is one of the rarest breeding birds in Canada, listed as Endangered in 1993 by the Province of Ontario, and in 2000 by the Canadian government. It is one of the small, large-headed, short-tailed sparrows in the Ammodramus genus along with Le Conte’s, Nelson’s and Grasshopper Sparrows. Henslow’s Sparrow is the rarest member of this group in Canada, limited to a few individuals any one year in Southern Ontario. Henslow’s Sparrow stays low to the ground, rarely affording a good view of its boldly marked olive head and brown body streaked with black, unless it pops up to “sing” briefly on the top of a plant stalk before dropping back to the ground. “Song” is a flattering way to describe the sound emitted by Henslow’s Sparrow. It is more like a hiccup that has been described as a two syllable “tsislick.” Its preferred habitat is damp hay fields and meadows with dense grasses or sedges, and some scattered shrubs.

Where else Can You See This Species?
It’s main breeding range stretches from Kansas to upper New York State, south of Lake Ontario. In Ontario Henslow’s Sparrow is an infrequent and rare breeder. Henslow’s Sparrow’s wintering range extends from Georgia to Texas across the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Walpoll Island in extreme south-western Ontario is one of very few sites in Ontario, where this species has been regularly observed in the past two decades. The most recent record of Henslow’s Sparrow in the Ottawa-Gatineau area was an individual near Gloucester in 1999 that was present for two days in June. Prior to this record, it had been over 20 years since the last Henslow’s Sparrow observation in the Ottawa region.

Did You Know?
• During the second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005, the Henslow’s Sparrow was found in only nine squares, and was not confirmed as breeding, as compared to 38 squares in the first Atlas (1981 – 1985).
• Henslow’s Sparrow, like many other grassland bird species, has declined due to loss of habitats from the intensification of agricultural practices including draining of marginal lands, row-cropping, and more intensive harvest of hay.
• At breeding colonies, Henslow’s Sparrow often sings at night. Surveying for Henslow’s Sparrows typically involves visiting road-side habitat around midnight or very early morning hours in mid-June.

Check back every week to read about a different species at risk that can be found in Lac Deschênes.
You can report sightings of this and other rare species to the Canadian Wildlife Service at (819) 997-2800 or on the MNR Natural Heritage Information Centre website. A photo and a location are very helpful!

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