Emberizinae (Towhees, Sparrows, and Allies)
Green-tailed Towhee,Pipilo chlorurus. (Fig. 11.50) Male length 6 3/4 in (17 cm), female length 6 1/2 in (16.75 cm); male weight 1 oz (28.9 g), female weight 7/8 oz (24.9 g). Locally common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, from 6,200 to 10,000 ft (1,890 to 3,050 m).
Green-tailed Towhees breed in brushland in this region, occurring in greatest numbers in open pinyon with mixed brushland. High-elevation habitats of sagebrush mixed with willows and birch are visited sparingly. A particularly favorable site is sagebrush interspersed with serviceberry, currant, and scattered pinyons in a canyon bottom. Arid flats of pure sagebrush are avoided. The adults are skilled runners, moving while crouched in alleyways between the shrubs. They forage on the ground
for insects and fruit in leaf litter. Nests are placed near the ground in bushes. Adult Green-tailed Towhees decoy readily to a squeak and commonly respond with a catlike mew . Males sing from open perches in pinyon tops at approximately 20 ft (6 m) above the ground. Reference: Grinnell and Storer (1924).
Rufous-sided Towhee,Pipilo erythrophthalmus. (Fig. 11.51) Male length 7 3/4 in (20 cm), female length 7 1/2 in (19.5 cm); male weight 1 3/10 oz (37.4 g), female weight 1 3/10 oz (37.6 g). Common resident in the White-Inyo Range, recorded from 6,000 to 9,000 ft (1,830 to 2,740 m).
This species frequents dense brushy habitats along slopes and canyon bottoms in the pinyon-juniper-mahogany belt. Sagebrush and streamside growth of willow-rose-birch are particularly favored. A ground cover of litter is essential to the presence of Rufous-sided Towhees; there the species rakes up seed of herbaceous vegetation and insects by simultaneously scratching with both feet. While foraging, it stays well hidden in the dense cover of brush or riparian thickets. Nests are usually placed on or near the ground at the base of a shrub or in an otherwise concealed place. During the breeding season, males commonly sing from more exposed areas, such as branches of small pinyons, junipers, or Mountain Mahogany. Although this species is difficult to see except when singing, it will readily announce its presence by a buzzy trill, which is subordinated in this region by one or more harsh introductory notes. References: Kroodsma (1971), Davis (1960).
Chipping Sparrow,Spizella passerina. (Fig. 11.52) Male length 5 1/4 in (13 cm), female length 5 in (12.5 cm); male weight 1/2 oz (12.6 g), female weight 2/5 oz (12.1
g). Very common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, from 7,200 to 10,400 ft (2,200 to 3,170 m).
This sparrow is very numerous in open woods of pinyon, juniper, and Mountain Mahogany. Territories are defended in areas of scattered trees, open brush, rocks and grass; heavy brush is avoided. Chipping Sparrows search the ground for small seeds and insects but will also take buds in bushes and trees, especially during the spring. The dry, harsh trill of the male is a common summertime song in this area. References: Grinnell and Storer (1924), Reynolds and Knapton (1984).
Brewer's Sparrow,Spizella breweri. (Fig. 11.53) Male length 5 1/4 in (13 cm), female length 5 in (12.5 cm); male weight 3/8 oz (11 g), female weight 3/8 oz (10.4 g). Very common summer resident in the White-Inyo region, from 6,750 to 10,300 ft (2,060 to 3,140 m).
Although the Brewer's Sparrow nests over an impressively wide elevational range in these mountains, only sagebrush is occupied. Extensive stands, such as those on the alluvial fans below the pinyon zone or those on benches and flats at high elevations, are used most commonly. Small numbers also nest in sagebrush growth in local openings of otherwise narrow canyons. This sparrow compensates for its plain plumage by emitting an elaborate song — a series of buzzes and trills given at different pitches, one of the longest vocalizations of any species in the region. Brewer's Sparrows forage
on the ground or in bushes for insects and seeds. Nests are well hidden in sagebrush tops. References: Reynolds (1981), Weathers (1983).
Black-chinned Sparrow,Spizella atrogularis. (Fig. 11.54) Male length 5 1/4 in (13 cm), female length 5 1/4 in (13 cm); male weight 3/8 oz (10.6 g), female weight 3/8 oz (10.9 g). Rare and local summer resident in the White Mountains; recorded between 6,750 and 7,000 ft (2,060 and 2,130 m).
The Black-chinned Sparrow occurs sparingly in the White Mountains, at the northern edge of the species' distribution, where it lives in a rather distinctive and characteristic habitat. Although sagebrush is usually prevalent where this sparrow breeds in eastern California, it typically requires a diverse mixture of shrubs in addition to the sage, including Rabbitbrush, Bitterbrush, and Mormon Tea. Furthermore, most records of the species are from brushland sites in varied, sloping terrain, often with jumbled rock outcrops and a scattering of pinyon and/or juniper. Males sing from either the tops of these small trees or from the tops of prominent shrubs and usually fly substantial distances between song perches. Thus, territories
are large, and pairs are widely spaced. The easiest way to detect this trim, handsome sparrow is through its distinctive song — a rapid trill introduced by three clear, sweet notes and increasing in cadence toward the end. Reference: Johnson, Bryant, and Miller (1948).
Vesper Sparrow,Poocetes gramineus. (Fig. 11.55) Male length 6 in (15 cm); female length 5 3/4 in (14.75 cm); male weight 7/8 oz (24.9 g), female weight 4/5 oz (22.7 g). Uncommon summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, from approximately 7,800 to 10,500 ft (2,380 to 3,200 m).
This species occurs in the sagebrush-grassland habitat both below and above the pinyon belt. There only small numbers can be found. Vesper Sparrows are shy birds and commonly remain undetected even when present because of their inconspicuous habits. They forage mostly on the ground, but males usually perch on prominent sage tops when delivering their advertising song. References: Kroodsma (1972), Grinnell and Storer (1924).
Black-throated Sparrow,Amphispiza bilineata. (Fig. 11.56) Male length 5 1/4 in (13 cm), female length 5 in (12.5 cm); male weight 1/2 oz (13.5 g), female weight 1/2 oz (13.2 g). Fairly common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, occurring from the valley bottoms up to approximately 6,800 ft (2,070 m) elevation.
Black-throated Sparrows occur only in brushland on the alluvial fans on both slopes of the mountains. They generally prefer the warmer, drier areas to the south. Consequently, greatest densities are attained in the southern Shadscale zone, with the species becoming relatively scarce on the cooler sagebrush slopes to the north. The sparrows favor areas that are sparingly vegetated and where an exposed hard rock or gravel surface is evident. Seeds taken from the ground between shrubs constitute the primary food. Nests are placed on the ground in a thick cover of brush. During
the breeding season, these birds can be seen or heard singing from bush tops, and after June, postbreeding family groups filter through the brushland. This strikingly patterned species is often easy to watch and seems tamer than its somewhat plainer relative, the Sage Sparrow. References: Heckenlively (1970), Weathers (1983).
Sage Sparrow,Amphispiza belli. (Fig. 11.57) Male length 5 3/4 in (14.5 cm), female length 5 1/2 in (14 cm); male weight 3/5 oz (16.5 g), female weight 1/2 oz (14.7 g). Very common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range; occurs from the valley floors to approximately 7,500 ft (2,290 m) elevation. Postbreeding birds occur higher, to 8,500 ft (2,590 m), even in early June.
This species occurs continuously along the west-facing slope from the north end of the White Mountains to the southern portion of the Inyos. Curiously, it is rare or lacking on the east side of the mountains south of Trail Canyon. Flats and alluvial fans between 3,500 and 6,500 ft (1,067 and 1,981 m) support the greatest numbers; very high altitudes are avoided. Like its close relative the Black-throated Sparrow, the Sage Sparrow lives only in brushland, and both species commonly occur side by side in the White-Inyo Range. In the north the Sage Sparrow occupies essentially pure sagebrush, while in the south Shadscale (saltbush) is the predominant habitat. Seeds of annual plants provide the primary food source. This sparrow also uses the tops of
bushes for song posts as well as for concealed nest sites. Occasionally, several males can be heard singing from very close range. The tinkling song carries for several hundred yards unless the bird is downwind. Nesting begins in April in the south, so that fully grown juveniles abound in the saltbush scrub by June, when family groups are commonly encountered. Northern populations breed several weeks later. These birds are typically shy and difficult to approach in the open brushland; when pressed, they will fly long distances and may drop to the ground and run among the shadows below well-spaced shrubs. References: Moldenhauer and Wiens (1970), Wiens (1982).
Fox Sparrow,Passerella iliaca. (Fig. 11.58) Male length 6 1/2 in (16.75 cm), female length 6 1/2 in (16.75 cm); male weight 1 oz (29.7 g), female weight 1 oz (28.1 g). Locally common summer resident in the White Mountains, between 6,750 and 9,600 ft (2,060 and 2,930 m) elevation. Known to occur locally in the Inyo Range (Lead Canyon, 9,600 ft [2,930 m]).
Fox Sparrows breed in dense riparian thickets of willows, Water Birch, aspen saplings, and Wild Rose, especially in the deep canyons on the east side of the mountains. This habitat, shared by all Great Basin and Rocky Mountain subspecies, contrasts strikingly with the chaparral used primarily by all forms in the Sierra Nevada. In favorable streamside growth, Fox Sparrow territories are placed in a
continuous linear sequence, and two or more males are commonly heard at once. Song perches, from 5 to 15 ft (1.5 to 4.6 m) high, are typically in bush tops, which offer partial concealment by sprays of foliage. This species forages principally on the ground in leaf litter, which is kicked away by vigorous backward strokes of the legs. Insects exposed in this way are fed to the nestlings. References: Martin (1977), Martin (1979).
Song Sparrow,Melospiza melodia. (Fig. 11.59). Male length 5 3/4 oz (14.75 cm), female length 5 1/2 in (14.25 cm); male weight 3/4 oz (21.7 g), female weight 3/4 oz (20.4 g). Locally common summer resident in the White Mountains with records up to 9,600 ft (2,930 m); more numerous in Owens Valley to the west of the White-Inyo Range.
The highest elevational record for the form M. m. fisherella occurs in Cottonwood Basin in the White Mountains. There, and throughout this generally arid region, the species is restricted to canyon bottoms with thick, low cover near water. Willow and Wild Rose thickets along streams are commonly occupied. Song Sparrows forage near the water's edge or on damp ground below the willows. Males sing from exposed bush tops, usually no more than several feet above the ground. Food consists of insects and seeds taken from the ground. References: Nice (1937); Smith, Yom-Toy, and Moses (1982).
White-crowned Sparrow,Zonotrichia leucophrys. (Fig. 11.60) Male length 6 1/2 in (16.5 cm), female length 6 in. (15.5 cm); male weight 1 oz (30 g), female weight 9/10 oz (26.1 g). Common summer resident in the White Mountains, between 8,200 and 10,500 ft (2,500 and 3,200 m).
White-crowned Sparrows frequent high-altitude meadows where willow thickets, young or stunted pines, scattered aspen saplings, and wildflowers are clumped on the boggy ground. Because they favor places with running water, the headwaters of mountain streams are a good place to find the species. The adults are sleek and appear clean-cut. During the summer, they forage for insects on the damp ground, never far from cover. Nests are placed either on the ground under willows or other bushes, or a few feet above the ground in willows or small conifers. In the Subalpine Zone of the high Sierra Nevada, the volume of winter and spring snowfall drastically influences both the timing of summer breeding and the amount of space available for nesting. When the snowpack is heavy, fewer birds breed, and these individuals nest two weeks later than during normal years. Populations in the White Mountains presumably respond in a similar fashion. References: Morton (1978); Morton, Horstman, and Osborn (1972).
Dark-eyed (Oregon) Junco,Junco hyemalis. (Fig. 11.61) Male length 5 1/2 in (14.25 cm), female length 5 1/2 in (14 cm); male weight 3/5 oz (17 g), female weight 5/8 oz (18.3 g). Common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, between 7,400 and 10,500 ft (2,260 and 3,200 m).
Gray-headed Junco,Junco caniceps. (Fig. 11.62) Male length 6 in (15.25 cm), female length 6 in (15 cm); male weight 5/8 oz (18.4 g), female weight 5/8 oz (18.8 g). Rare to relatively common summer resident in the White-Inyo Range, between 7,400 and 10,500 ft (2,260 and 3,200 m).
Because these two forms hybridize in the region, some authorities combine them into one species (Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis ). However, most individuals encountered in this area appear to be either pure parental types or very close to one species or the other; thus, we prefer to consider them as two full species. Furthermore, studies from several areas where both forms coexist have shown that each kind prefers to pair with a mate of similar appearance, further evidence that two distinct species are involved.
Juncos prefer cool and shady places where grass or forb cover provides a substrate for foraging and nesting. Thus, woodland of large pinyons on north- or east-facing slopes, riparian growth of willows and aspen, shady groves of large Mountain Mahogany, and Subalpine Forest of Bristlecone, Limber, and Lodgepole pines are all used. Openings in these habitats are favored. Most activities are concentrated on or near the ground. There juncos take insects and seeds and commonly conceal their nests under overhanging plants or turf. However, exposed twigs or tree tops at heights ranging from 10 to 50 ft (3 to 15 m) are chosen by males for song posts. The song is a ringing, musical trill. Juncos give their distinctive popping note when an intruder is
near the nest, especially after the eggs have hatched. References: Balph (1977), Hadley (1969), A. Miller (1941).