- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident and migrant; the LeConte’s Sparrow was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Restricted largely to the interior Canadian provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, the species’ breeding range also dips into eastern North Dakota, northeastern South Dakota, northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Small, localized populations occur elsewhere, including British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario. An uncommon species throughout its breeding range, it is found in relatively high abundance in northwestern Minnesota (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 12/20 by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A short-distance migrant that winters in the south-central United States.
An omnivorous ground forager that consumes insects and seeds.
An open-cup nest located on or just above the ground.
In the early 20th century, Roberts (1932) characterized the LeConte’s Sparrow as a species of Minnesota’s prairies and open woodlands. Considered largely absent from the northern forest landscape, the species was detected in eastern Marshall County and northern Isanti County, both on the periphery of the northern forest biome. At the time Roberts considered the species to be extremely abundant in the Red River valley, “in some places far outnumbering any other small marsh-dwelling species.” He noted that “it is likely to occur where-ever there are suitable marshes, wet meadows, or low-lying prairie with long-tangled grass and clumps of small bushes.” Confirmed nesting records (nest with eggs or young) were available only from Kittson County. Inferred nesting records (young out of nest) were available from Hennepin, Marshall, Ramsey, and Sherburne Counties. Roberts’s first encounter with this secretive and elusive little wetland bird was in the heart of Minneapolis in 1877. He found at least 1 pair “in a willow-grown bog beside a slough, which has long since disappeared to become the present-day popular ‘Parade,’ not far from the center of the city of Minneapolis.”
In the revised, second edition of The Birds of Minnesota, Roberts (1936) noted that Gustave Swanson had found LeConte’s Sparrows to be common in the “extreme northern part of Koochiching County.” This record extended the species’ breeding range much farther east into the “Canadian Zone” than Roberts originally noted.
In 1959, Dwain Warner, the Bell Museum’s curator of ornithology, published a small update on the status of the species (Warner 1959). Knowing that Roberts had described the species as a summer resident throughout all but Minnesota’s northern forest region, Warner commented on the recent paucity of LeConte’s Sparrow records. Although the museum and its staff had received thousands of observations of Minnesota birds since Roberts’s 1932 publication, there were only 12 breeding season observations of LeConte’s Sparrow, stretching from Steele County in southeastern Minnesota northwest to northern Roseau County.
In the years that followed, a few more efforts to locate the birds were successful. A small population was found in southern St. Louis County in 1962 (Kuyava 1962), and the birds were documented at numerous localities in northwestern Minnesota by David Parmelee and his students during the summers they spent at the Lake Itasca Biological Station. Not only were birds found in Itasca State Park, they were also quite common in the wet meadows west of the park and to the southeast, in Wadena County. Then in 1972, Parmelee and his colleague, Richard Oehlenschlager (1973), located 1 nest with 3 large young in the county in 1972 and 2 nests with 5 eggs in 1973. This was the first confirmed nesting occurrence (nest with eggs) since Roberts (1932) confirmed nesting in Kittson County in 1929.
When Green and Janssen (1975) published their updated account on the species’ status a few years later, they described the sparrow’s range as limited primarily to the state’s northwestern region, though it was occasionally found in suitable habitat south through central Minnesota. Although they noted a 1928 record of juveniles from Jackson County on the Iowa border, that was not included in Roberts’s (1932) account, there were no current records in the southern counties.
Janssen (1987) elaborated on the species’ distribution a few years later, describing it as a “common and widespread” species in central and northern Minnesota. It could be found as far south as Pine, Sherburne, and Stearns Counties in the east, and Wilkin and Clay Counties in the west. The species appeared to have receded, however, from the southern periphery of its range in the state. Janssen noted that it was formerly found south to Lac qui Parle County in the west, and to Dakota County in the east. Yet, by the late 20th century, there were only 3 summer observations from Hennepin, Lincoln, and Lyon Counties in the southern region. Since 1970, nesting had been confirmed in only 4 counties: Aitkin, Beltrami, Marshall, and Wadena. By 1998, Hertzel and Janssen added 2 additional counties to the list, Becker and Red Lake. Parmalee and Oehlenschlager’s 1972 and 1973 nesting records from Wadena County, however, were not included on their map of confirmed nesting records since 1970.
Work conducted by field biologists with the Minnesota Biological Survey beginning in the late 1980s provided the first comprehensive assessment of the LeConte’s Sparrow’s distribution in Minnesota. A total of 464 breeding season locations were documented. At the time, suitable habitat in the Northern Minnesota and Ontario Peatlands Section had not yet been surveyed. Aside from 2 breeding season observations along the Minnesota River valley in Lac qui Parle and Nicollet Counties, the species was restricted to the northern half of the state, from Stearns and Stevens Counties north to the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province in the northwest, and to west-central Lake County in the east (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016).
MNBBA participants reported 664 LeConte’s Sparrow records in 9.4% (445/4,752) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 11.8% (276/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was documented in only 4 atlas blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in 45 of Minnesota’s 87 counties and were documented breeding in 3 counties: Aitkin, Kittson, and Roseau. The sparrow was most abundant and widely distributed in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province but was common also in the wet prairies of the Glacial Lake Agassiz beach ridges in the Red River valley and in the extensive sedge wetlands of Aitkin County. Aside from a few records near or adjacent to the Minnesota River valley, LeConte’s Sparrows were entirely absent from the southern third of the state.
Although Roberts (1932) characterized the sparrow as a species found throughout the state’s prairie region, he provided no documentation of its occurrence south of the Minnesota River. Only the 1928 Jackson County record noted by Green and Janssen (1975) provided evidence of its former occurrence in the region. Indeed, since Warner’s brief assessment of the species’ distribution in 1959, it appeared that the species had always been restricted to the northern two-thirds of the state. Records in the northern forested region of the state likely do not represent an expansion of the species’ range but rather documentation that the species can be found in the wet sedge meadows and open peatlands that are scattered throughout this region.
Atlas data were used to generate a predicted breeding distribution map for the species (Figure 4). The Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Province and the glacial beach ridges of the Red River valley support the core of the species’ range in the state. The model also predicts that suitable habitat to support low breeding densities may be found in scattered wetlands not only across central and north-central Minnesota but also in the southwest and southeastern regions.
Lowther’s (2005) comprehensive review of the species makes no note of wide-scale changes in the species’ distribution other than a passing reference to the fact that it was formerly a rare breeder in northeastern Illinois. Wisconsin’s first breeding bird atlas (1995–2000) documented LeConte’s Sparrow records in scattered locations throughout the northern third of the state and a few records farther south in the central region (Cutright et al. 2006), including a confirmed breeding record as far south as Marquette County, directly east of La Crosse. The species is also uncommon and sparsely distributed in Michigan, where the first atlas (1983–1988) reported records in 30 townships, all restricted to the Upper Peninsula. During the state’s second atlas (2002–2008), reports were documented in 51 townships, including 5 in the northern Lower Peninsula (Chartier et al. 2013). Records also increased in Ontario during its second atlas (2001–2005), when the probability of detection more than doubled since the first atlas was conducted (1981–1985; Cadman et al. 2007). In South Dakota, only 3 birds were encountered during the first atlas (1988–1992), compared to 83 during the second atlas (2009–2012) (Drilling et al. 2016).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.