Species Spotlight: Baird’s Sparrow
Common name: Baird’s Sparrow
Latin name: Ammodramus bairdii
Status under SARA: Special Concern. 2012 COSEWIC assessment: Special Concern
Range: Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
Lifespan: unknown, but believed to be 3 to 6 years
Size: average weight of 19 g; average length of 12 cm
Population estimate: global population is estimated at 1.2 million individuals (± 50%), 60% of which breed in Canada
- The Baird’s Sparrow belongs to the Ammodramus genus of small, short-tailed sparrows It is brown like several other sparrows in the area, but the Baird’s Sparrow has a yellowish-ochre face with two dark spots behind the cheeks and two thin moustache-like marks near the beak. It also has a necklace of thin streaks across the top of its breast.
- Baird’s Sparrows breed mainly in native mixed grass and fescue prairie with little to no shrubs, although they also nest in dry wetland basins, wet meadows, areas with planted cover, or dense grass within hay or crops. They seem to be more tolerant of agricultural habitats than some other grassland birds.
- Breeding begins in late May. Clutches have four or five eggs and incubation lasts 11-12 days. Brood size averages three to four nestlings and young leave the nest, still flightless, after 8-11 days.
- The sparrows leave their wintering grounds in northern Mexico between March and May, with a peak in late April, arriving in Canada in late May. Southward fall migration starts in September through October and the sparrows migrate singly or in small flocks by night.
- Their song is a series of notes followed by a trill. Baird’s Sparrows have 13 song types – seven of which account for 89% of songs heard. Individuals sing only one song type throughout their life.
The main threat to Baird’s Sparrows is habitat destruction and degradation. Much habitat is being lost to the conversion of native grassland to cropland. Other degradation factors include urbanization, roadways, shelterbelts, and, especially in the past decades, energy development. Habitat fragmentation from these activities exacerbates other threats. For example, it leaves the area vulnerable to nest parasitism by cowbirds and infiltration of invasive exotic plants like Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis), Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula), Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea stoebe), Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum), and Yellow Sweet Clover (Melilotus officinalis).
The infrastructure associated with energy extraction and renewable energy projects, in particular, contributes greatly to this fragmentation. In the Baird’s Sparrow’s breeding range, the number of gas wells nearly tripled in the last 20 years in Canada. These well sites, trails and pipelines have impacted more than 30,000 ha of grassland habitat and seismic line have created 65,000 ha of edge habitat. To meet consumer demand, the destruction of an additional 9000 ha of grassland habitat per year is predicted. While the geographic scope of these threats seems large, their severity is unknown. Studies have shown Baird’s Sparrows avoid traditionally constructed oil development and gas wells, but more work is required to determine how much these developments impact sparrow populations.
The Baird’s Sparrow is also affected by the disruption of the natural processes like livestock grazing. Today, grazing in many areas is more intensive and uniform than it was historically, disrupting the dynamic, heterogeneous landscape the sparrows rely on. Similarly, activities like irrigation or drainage disrupt natural drought cycles, and fires, which helped maintain the habitat historically, now occur on artificial schedules that are rarely optimal for grassland birds.
Other threats to Baird’s Sparrows include agricultural operations, heightened levels of cowbird parasitism, pesticides, and climate change. Their relative importance is unknown but, in each case, negative impacts on Baird’s Sparrows have been documented and are similar on breeding and wintering grounds
What’s Being Done
In Alberta, just over half of grasslands are on Crown land and, in Saskatchewan, at least 30% of native grassland is under some form of protection by government or by non-government organizations (NGOs). However, even on dedicated conservation lands, habitat management is often inappropriate for Baird’s Sparrows. “Protection” does not usually include protection from energy development, except in National Parks and possibly the Suffield NWA. Also, in the United States, the US Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) does not allow grazing on the lands they manage, which is not ideal for the sparrows. Additionally, CRP often introduces alien grasses on these lands, instead of the native grasses the bird prefers.
Currently, the Baird’s Sparrow is listed under “Special Concern” according to the 2012 assessment by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). Its status under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) is also “Special Concern.”
What You Can Do
- Stay informed and support Nature Canada’s various bird conservation and protected areas
- Make earth-friendly consumer choices to mitigate the impacts of climate change and intensive crop farming.
Thanks to Nature Canada volunteer Amanda Simard for contributing this profile.