This rare and local summer Tennessee resident is one of the most handsome of North American sparrows with its striking chestnut-patterned face, bold black central chest spot, and towhee-like white-tipped tail. It is named for its lark-like song, which is a varied series of melodious notes, buzzes, and trills. The Lark Sparrow breeds from southern Canada across the western three-quarters of the United States, and south to northern Mexico. Northern breeders move south in winter as far as northern Central America. Breeding Bird Survey data show a nationwide decrease in populations, especially in the eastern portion of the range. In Tennessee, Lark Sparrows breed in the cedar glades of Middle Tennessee, and in scattered locations mostly west of the Tennessee River. It arrives in the state in early May and departs by mid-July. The Lark Sparrow is listed as a Threatened species in Tennessee.
Description: This large sparrow has a bold chestnut, black, and white facial pattern, a white breast with a bold black central spot, a long, rounded tail with white corners (similar to Easter Towhee), and a brown streaked back. The juvenile (June-September) has brown streaks on the chest and a brown dull facial pattern. Males and females look similar.
Weight: 1 oz
Voice: The song is a varied mix of melodious clear notes, trills, and buzzes. The call is a thin sit.
Vesper Sparrow has white only on the edges of its tail, a streaked breast, and lacks the bold facial pattern.
Habitat: In Middle Tennessee, the Lark Sparrow is primarily found in the limestone cedar glades of Rutherford and Wilson Counties. This landscape is harsh and dry in summer with extensive areas of bare ground and rocky outcrops, patches of herbaceous ground cover, and scattered saplings, shrubs, and cedars trees. Elsewhere in the state it is found in heavily grazed pastures, cultivated and fallow fields with brushy edges, and clearcuts planted in pines.
Diet: Insects and seeds.
Nesting and reproduction: Males sing from high points within their territories and sometimes from the ground or in flight. They usually sing in early morning, evening, and occasionally at night.
Clutch Size: Ranges from 3 to 6 eggs, with 4 most common.
Incubation: The female alone incubates the eggs for 11 to 12 days.
Fledging: Both adults feed the nestlings, which fledge in about 10 days.
Nest: The thick-walled cup-nest is made of grass, twigs, or weedy stems lined with finer materials, and usually placed on ground sheltered by a clump of grass or other vegetation. Females are known to use nests, generally abandoned ones, of other species.
Status in Tennessee: The Lark Sparrow is a Threatened species in Tennessee. It is found in the state in early May and departs by mid-July, which is early for a temperate-zone breeder.
Dynamic map of Lark Sparrow eBird observations in Tennessee
- During courtship, the male Lark Sparrow crouches on the ground, holds his tail up spreading his tail feathers (showing off their white tips) and then struts, turkey-like, with his wings nearly touch the ground.
- Another unique Lark Sparrow behavior is the male giving the female a small twig just before copulation.
- Unlike many songbirds, the Lark Sparrow walks on the ground rather than hops.
- Female Lark Sparrows will use an old mockingbird or thrasher nest instead of building her own.
Best Places to See in Tennessee: Middle Tennessee limestone cedar glades in Rutherford and Wilson Counties.
For more information:
Martin, J. W., and J. R. Parrish. 2000. Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus). The Birds of North America, No. 488 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Nicholson, C. P. 1997. Atlas of Breeding Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.