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New Jersey Endangered and Threatened Species Field Guide

Image of An ipswich sparrow.Zoom+ An ipswich sparrow. © Eric C. Reuter

Ipswich sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis princeps

Species Group: Bird

Conservation Status

State: Special Concern



The Ipswich Sparrow is a geographically isolated subspecies of the savannah sparrow. This small sparrow breeds strictly on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and winters along the mid-Atlantic coast. Their nape, back, and rump are dark brown with varying degrees of streaking. Their crown is typically beige with a pale yellow eye-stripe. Ipswich sparrows have a whitish colored throat, breast, and belly. Light streaking occurs along their sides and chest, but not much along the belly. The Ipswich sparrow is overall paler and larger than the continental savannah sparrow.

Males and females are virtually the same in appearance. Juveniles are similar to adults in plumage. The juveniles are overall buff in color and are more heavily streaked with little to no eye-stripe.

Image of Range of the ipswich sparrow in New Jersey.Zoom+ Range of the ipswich sparrow in New Jersey.


There are 17 recognized subspecies of the savannah sparrow. The driving force behind determining these subspecies is called natal philopatry. Natal philopatry is the tendency of savannah sparrows to return each year to the area where they were hatched. Subspecies are considered reproductively isolated. This tendency is particularly strong in island species, such as the Ipswich sparrow.

In New Jersey, the Ipswich sparrow uses the coast as wintering grounds. They breed exclusively on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. Leaving their mid-Atlantic wintering grounds in March, they arrive on the island in early April. Spending almost 7 months on Sable Island, they migrate south in mid-October. Males typically winter further north than females. Ipswich sparrows also winter in other mid-Atlantic coastal states. Occasionally, they winter as far south as the Carolinas.

The Ipswich sparrow nests and winters in very similar habitat. They prefer coastal dunes with more stabilized areas when nesting. They avoid the back dunes of beaches. In the winter months, they prefer areas with good grass cover and access to fresh water.


The Ipswich sparrow feeds along shoreline habitat alone or in small flocks in non-breeding months. They typically walk when hunting instead of hopping as their continental counterparts would. They hunt for insects, insect larvae, and other small arthropods all while walking on the ground. During the winter months, seed is a particularly important food source.


Male Ipswich sparrows arrive on their breeding grounds well ahead of females. When the females arrive, males perform courtship singing and flutter flights. If a pair has nested together in previous seasons, they will begin breeding more rapidly than unknown mates. Ipswich females choose the nest site and begin to build a ground nest alone. It takes her 1 to 3 days to build a nest that has an outer layer of course grasses and a tightly woven inner cup of fine grasses.

The first egg is laid as soon as the nest is complete. The female lays an egg once per day until she has a 2-6 egg clutch. The egg color of Ipswich sparrows varies from pale green and brown to off-white, with marked brown speckling. Only the female incubates the clutch for 12-13 days.

The young are helpless when hatched and both parents bring food back to the nest to feed them. Fledglings leave the nest at 11 days. However, the adults continue to care for them until 21 days of age. Adult females may be incubating a second clutch while still caring for a first brood. Ipswich sparrows will breed continually throughout the season, having up to 3 broods in one breeding season. Juveniles form loose flocks and delay migration for 2-3 months post-fledging. They are sexually mature at 1 year of age.


In New Jersey, the Ipswich sparrow is listed as a species of Special Concern. They are presently listed as partial status under the Endangered Species Act. This partial status indicates that the status applies only to a portion of the species’ range.

The Ipswich sparrow is of particular importance because of their high reproductive rate during the breeding season. The protection of barrier islands, dune grass, and other open coastal habitat is necessary to help this species thrive. Natal philopatry also plays an important role in conservation. With their breeding range limited to one island, it is of great importance to protect that island and its resources.

Text written by Emily Heiser in 2011.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
    Phylum: Chordata
       Class: Aves
          Order: Passeriformes
             Family: Emberizidae
                Genus: Passerculus
                   Species: P. sandwichensis princeps

Find Related Info: Special concern, Grassland birds

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