Photo: Len Jellicoe
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Characteristics and Range This plain and drab sparrow nests primarily in sagebrush and shrubby, treeline habitat in the Great Basin and mountains of western North America, migrating short to medium distances to wintering grounds in the arid southwestern United States and the mountains of northern Mexico including Baja California. The two breeding habitats generally reflect the choices of two distinct subspecies: S. b. breweri, known as "Sagebrush Brewer's Sparrow", and S. b. taverneri, known as "Timberline Sparrow". Despite the drab brown/gray appearance of the Brewer's Sparrow, and its habit of sticking jealously to thick cover, males of this species can frequently be detected by their lovely song (slightly different in each sub-species) that can be heard across the sagebrush and mountain fields. Females are considerably more cryptic in their behaviour, and can be very difficult to see.
Distribution, Abundance, and Habitat In British Columbia there are four areas of Brewer's Sparrow distribution: the sagebrush-grasslands of the South Okanagan, the mid-elevation rain shadow of the Coast Mountains in the Southern Interior and Central Interior ecoprovinces, the subalpine and bushy willows of the treeline regions in the Rocky Mountains of the East Kootenay, and dispersed patches of treeline through the Northern Boreal Mountains Ecoprovince. This distribution is similar to that known when The Birds of British Columbia was published in 2001, but the Atlas extended the number of confirmed breeding sites in the Central Interior and Southern Interior Mountains (especially in the Purcell Mountains). The Southern Interior (for S. b. breweri) and Northern Boreal Mountains (for S. b. taverneri) remain the ecoprovinces with the highest abundances, as noted in Campbell et al. (2001). Too few data are available to model Probability of Observation across the four distinct zones used by this sparrow in British Columbia.
The Brewer's Sparrow occurs over a wide elevation range from 500 to 2,390 m, but 70% of Atlas observations and the highest abundances were between 500 and 1,250 m. Both subspecies have previously been recorded in the Rocky Mountains of the Southern Interior Ecoprovince (Campbell et al. 2001), but it is unclear what their habitat and elevation preferences are in this region. The Coast Mountains rain shadow birds occur in shrubby habitat between 1,430 and 2,110 m, very typical of S. b. taverneri. This subspecies breeds in similar habitats in the northwest, though at lower elevations because of the lower treeline in this region (British Columbia Ministry of Forests 2008).
Conservation and Recommendations The Sagebrush Brewer's Sparrow is at the northern limit of its range with a very small population in British Columbia, hence it is Red-Listed provincially. It requires extensive and unaltered sagebrush habitats across a range of elevations and conditions (Mahony et al. 2006). Breeding Bird Survey data suggest S. b. breweri populations may be in decline across substantial portions of this subspecies' range, likely due to a variety of factors including habitat loss and degradation on the breeding and wintering grounds (Knick et al. 2003, Rotenberry et al. 1999). Timberline Brewer's Sparrow is poorly known due to the remoteness of its habitat, but British Columbia may support a large global proportion of this subspecies, and treeline advance through predicted climate change (Hamann and Wang 2006) may impact available habitat. More research is needed to determine the distribution, status and habitat of "Timberline Sparrow" in British Columbia, as well as determine the subspecies status of the Southern Interior Mountains birds.
Acknowledgements Nancy Mahony kindly reviewed and made improvements to a draft of this account.
Recommended citation: Starzomski, B. 2015. Brewer's Sparrow in Davidson, P.J.A., R.J. Cannings, A.R. Couturier, D. Lepage, and C.M. Di Corrado (eds.). The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of British Columbia, 2008-2012. Bird Studies Canada. Delta, B.C. http://www.birdatlas.bc.ca/accounts/speciesaccount.jsp?sp=BRSP&lang=en [29 Feb 2024]
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