Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni)

Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow by Chris WoodNelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow distribution map


Population Information

The Federal BBS information can be obtained at by clicking on Trend Estimates and selecting the species in question. All estimates are for time period (1966-2005).

Life History

Habitat Selection

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow is a specialist of large northern sedge meadows (>100 acres) and sedge marshes in extreme northern and northwestern Wisconsin. They seem to select sites with an abundance of residual vegetation (Sample and Mossman 1997). Nests are built within grass just above the ground (Greenlaw and Rising 1994). Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are promiscuous breeders with males forming loose colonies, not assisting with brood rearing (Greenlaw and Rising 1994) and are interspecifically territorial with LeConte’s Sparrows (DeChant et al 2003).

During migration Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are found in and around the edges of marshes, ag fields, grassy fields, etc. In Wisconsin they are regularly found in fall migration at migrant traps in Milwaukee and Nine Springs wetlands in Madison.

This species winters in coastal marshes and grasslands along the Gulf Coast from Corpus Christi, TX east to Florida.

Habitat Availability

Northern sedge meadows and sedge marshes are found throughout northern and central Wisconsin. However; due to its secretive nature, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows have been documented as probable breeders in only a few sites. Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are reliably found in the Crex Meadows/Fish Lake Complex and occasionally in the Powell Marsh Wildlife Area (Sample and Mossman 1997). More work is needed to determine whether other large northern sedge meadow complexes are used by this species.

Population Concerns

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are, and appear to always have been, rare spring migrants and rare to absent fall migrants. This species has only recently been found as a probable breeder in Wisconsin (first breeding record 1969). Wisconsin is not even included in most breeding range maps. Protection of these large northern sedge meadow sites will probably continue to benefit this species and other sedge meadow specialists. However, Wisconsin’s population is probably heavily dependent on regional source populations from Minnesota and North Dakota.

Recommended Management

Conservation of northern sedge marshes and sedge meadows is essential, especially on the larger scale that Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow requires (Greenlaw and Rising 1994). Management practices that maintain the wet grasslands Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows require should be divided into blocks so there is always breeding habitat available. A burn rotation of every 3-5 years is the best recommendation to allow the structure to return and retard woody vegetation (DeChant et al. 2003).

Anecdotal evidence from birders in southern Wisconsin suggests that this species is attracted to marshes that have been drawn-down, producing dense stands of Polygonum and Bidens. Managers that are performing these drawdowns for shorebirds and vegetation management should also be aware of this species use of the habitat.

Research Needs

The U.S. breeding bird survey gives poor sample data of Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows. There is little to no information on the interior population that Wisconsin’s Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are a part of. Nesting productivity and density studies aimed at Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrows are few and far between. Population effects from open water marsh management practices are unknown and would be useful for management purposes (Greenlaw and Rising 1994).

Information Sources


Contact Info

Kreitinger, K., Y. Steele and A. Paulios, editors. 2013.
The Wisconsin All-bird Conservation Plan, Version 2.0. Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative.
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Madison, WI.

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