Rare Species Guide

 Centronyx bairdii    (Audubon, 1844)

Baird's Sparrow 

MN Status:
(as Ammodramus bairdii)
Federal Status:


(Mouse over a habitat for definition)

Minnesota range map
Map Interpretation
North American range map
Map Interpretation


Ammodramus bairdii

  Basis for Listing

The breeding range of the Baird's sparrow is restricted to the northern Great Plains states and the southern Canadian Prairie Provinces. In Minnesota this species was probably never very abundant, breeding only in the Red River valley from Traverse County north to the Canadian border. By the 1920s, the Baird's sparrow was common only in dry prairie habitat of the Upper Red River valley. By the 1960s it had become very rare in Minnesota, with the vast majority of records coming from the Felton Prairie area in Clay County. This scarcity led to the Baird's sparrow's classification as endangered in Minnesota in 1984.

Since 1990, Baird's sparrows have been observed at Felton Prairie in only three summers, and nesting has not been positively documented. Additionally, the species has only been observed at three locations outside of Felton Prairie during the breeding season. The native prairie on the Glacial Lake Agassiz beach ridge at Felton Prairie has suffered from conversion to cropland and gravel quarrying, and the remaining habitat may no longer be sufficient to sustain a breeding population of Baird's sparrows. Additionally, because Baird's sparrows nest entirely within the egg laying season of the brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) and are unable to distinguish cowbird eggs from their own, they are highly susceptible to cowbird nest parasitism (Davis and Sealy 1998).


The Baird's sparrow is similar in appearance to several other sparrows, but can be identified by the dull orange color on its head and the dark streaked necklace on its breast. This species is best identified by its distinctive song, which consists of two or three high, thin introductory notes followed by a musical trill. On its breeding grounds, the bird seems reluctant to fly and more often runs through the grass if disturbed.


On the eastern periphery of its range, the Baird's sparrow prefers dry, native grassland where the grass is dense and fairly long. Farther west, in the heart of its range, it tolerates more grazing and uses a greater variety of grassland habitats. Researchers have speculated that the Baird's sparrow is ephemeral in its distribution, shifting breeding habitat in response to annual moisture conditions (Kantrud and Faanes 1979). In dry years the species tends to be found in mesic sites, whereas in wet years, drier sites are preferred.

  Biology / Life History

Baird's sparrows overwinter in grasslands in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. Males arrive on the breeding grounds in early to mid-May, before the females, and establish territories of 0.5-1.5 ha (1.2-3.7 ac.). They seem to prefer territories adjacent to each other, and it is thought that the species may be semi-colonial or polygynous. Nests are constructed in scrapes on the ground and are made of fine materials such as grasses, horse hair, and moss. They are concealed from above by tufts of overhanging grass and are very well hidden (Jones and Green 1998). Clutches of 4-5 eggs are laid in June or July. The young hatch in 11-12 days and fledge after an additional 8-11 days. They grow quickly, and two broods are sometimes produced in a summer. Baird's sparrows eat insects, spiders, and other invertebrates during summer, and seeds during winter.

  Conservation / Management

Habitat preservation is the most important conservation strategy for Baird's sparrows. Efforts should be made to maintain native prairie in large tracts wherever possible. Fragmentation of prairie habitat increases the ratio of edge to interior habitat, which leads to increased numbers of predators and brown-headed cowbirds (Johnson and Temple 1990). Controlled burns that mimic natural fire intervals and help recreate native prairie conditions should be conducted. Although Baird's sparrows may not use an area immediately after it is burned, populations usually rebound within two or three years (Pylypec 1991). This species is generally absent from heavily grazed land, but will nest in moderately-grazed areas. Rotational grazing systems, which provide undisturbed areas during the nesting season, have resulted in high densities of Baird's sparrows (Messmer 1990). Mowing should be delayed until late August to avoid destroying nests. Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land does not appear to provide suitable habitat for this species, as most land currently under this program is reseeded with non-native grasses or non-native grass-legume mixtures rather than native species. Landowners in the CRP program should be encouraged to maintain their land in such a way that it is suitable for Baird's sparrows.

Several programs and resources are available to land managers and landowners to help protect and manage remaining prairie parcels including the Native Prairie Bank Program, the Native Prairie Tax Exemption Program, and a prairie restoration handbook.

  Conservation Efforts in Minnesota

It is difficult to assess the population status of Baird's sparrows, due to the species current rarity in the state. However, accurate knowledge of the status of Baird's sparrows in Minnesota is necessary to plan recovery efforts for this species. Surveys of the Felton Prairie area, where Baird's sparrows are most frequently sighted, should be continued. Somewhat encouraging was the presence of two singing male Baird's sparrows in a large prairie restoration area in Polk County in 2002 (Richardson 2003). Prairie management and restoration should be continued in this area, and further inventories for Baird's sparrows should be conducted.

  References and Additional Information

Davis, S. K., and S. G. Sealy. 1998. Nesting biology of the Baird's Sparrow in Southwestern Manitoba. Wilson Bulletin 110(2):262-270.

Johnson, R. G., and S. A. Temple. 1990. Nest predation and brood parasitism of tallgrass prairie birds. Journal of Wildlife Management 54:106-111.

Jones, S. L., and M. T. Green. 1998. Baird's Sparrow status assessment and conservation plan. May 1998. Administrative Report. U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Denver, CO.

Kantrud, H. A., and C. A. Faanes. 1979. Range expansion of Baird's sparrow in South Dakota. Prairie Naturalist 11:111-112.

Messmer, T. A. 1990. Influence of grazing treatments on nongame birds and vegetation structure in south central North Dakota. Ph.D. Dissertation, North Dakota State University, Fargo, North Dakota. 147 pp.

Pylypec, B. 1991. Impacts of fire on bird populations in a fescue prairie. Canadian Field-Naturalist 105:346-349.

Richardson, J. 2003. Baird's Sparrows, Polk County. Loon 75:52-53.

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