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Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia

Song Sparrow has a partial to incomplete (rarely complete) preformative molt, but lacks prealternate molts. Because the preformative molt can be complete and many intermediates are difficult to age in spring, caution should be exercised with ageing unless retained juvenile feathers are visible. Sex can be determined only by brood patch / cloacal protuberance during the breeding season.

Juvenile plumage is very similar to that of Lincoln's and Swamp Sparrows; Song Sparrow tends to have a proportionately longer tail, and distinctly wide malar stripe.

Quick tips

  • Look at the tail - uniformly narrow and pointed rectrices OR a mix of narrow and broad rectrices are indicative of FCF (HY/SY), while uniformly broad and more rounded rectrices are NOT useful as they are common among both FCF (HY/SY) and older age classes.
  • In fall, examine the iris in good light - it is grayish-brown in FCF (HY) birds, compared to chestnut-brown in DCB (AHY) birds.
  • Look at the inner secondaries - a contrast between them and more faded outer secondaries is indicative of FCF (HY/SY), while a uniform appearance is typical of DCB (AHY) until mid-fall, but thereafter should only be considered evidence of M-FCF (AHY) because a minority of individuals may undergo a complete preformative molt.
  • Check the outer primary coverts - they are relatively narrow and pointed with minimal gray edging on FCF (HY/SY) birds, and relatively broad and rounded with reddish-brown edging on DCB/M-FCF (AHY) birds.

Species account prepared by McGill Bird Observatory (2016). Last updated by Marcel Gahbauer (Mar 2022)

The molt categories displayed below may be filtered by month.


Click on any image below to bring up the side-by-side comparison tool.

Individuals not in molt

FCJ - (HY: April - September)
Somewhat dull and grayish, with indistinct streaking on the underparts
No images available yet
M-FCF - (U: December - December; AHY January - October)
Rectrices all relatively broad and rounded; outer primary coverts relatively broad and rounded, with reddish-brown edging; primaries and secondaries uniformly dark; iris distinctly brown
Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1941.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1943.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2431-87108-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1942.jpg
FCF - (HY/SY: July - following October)
Rectrices all relatively narrow and pointed or mixed with fresher, broader, and more rounded feathers; outer primary coverts relatively narrow and pointed with minimal gray edging; primaries and secondaries uniformly paler than coverts or showing blocks of darker replaced feathers after an eccentric molt; iris grayish-brown until early-mid winter
Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1944.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1946.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2341-58015-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1945.jpg

Individuals in active molt

FPJ - (HY: April - August)
Similar to FCJ; some natal down remaining and/or juvenile flight feathers still growing in
Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1947.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1949.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2241-30925-Melospiza_melodia_AOU_7_52-1948.jpg
FPF - (HY: July - November)
Similar to FCF; median and greater coverts and tertials being replaced; occasionally also some to all rectrices and primaries being replaced; iris grayish
No images available yet
M-SPB - (AHY: July - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained feathers not distinctly pale or worn; iris brown
No images available yet
SPB - (SY: July - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained juvenile primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts distinctly pale brown and very worn; iris brown
No images available yet
Number of species: 74

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