Seaside Sparrow Ammospiza maritima Scientific name definitions

Jon S. Greenlaw, W. Gregory Shriver, and William Post
Version: 2.0 — Published July 1, 2022

Sounds and Vocal Behavior



Peep given by begging young through day 4 is replaced by day 5 by “cedar call,” transliterated as ce-ce-ce...ce (7). Juvenile males give practice or subsong, a muted, complex warble interspersed with call notes and snatches of Primary Song (169) as early as July in northern Florida (170) and July–August in southern Florida (7). Early in spring, young males begin to sing nearly normal Primary Songs, correlated with establishment of first territories (170).

Vocal Array

Primary Song. Primary Song phrase lasts 1.0–1.5 s . Songs more complex than human ear can easily detect and are composed of variety of sonic characters (Figure 4). These include clicks, buzzes, trills, and tonal figures, which are whistled sounds taking forms of glissandi, warbles, strokes, and constant pitch noises, sustained for up to 60 msec (57). Songs of northern birds (A. m. maritima) commonly open with short, low trill (2 kHz) consisting of 4–6 clicks, then a single wide-frequency note (4.5–5.5 kHz) followed immediately by a central, coarse trill-phrase (2–5.5 kHz) and 2 abrupt, wide-frequency elements (first descending, other ascending in frequency). Songs in all populations typically end in distinctive terminal-buzz (highly frequency modulated), which varies in pitch and noisiness (169, 57).

Song structure varies geographically, most notably in introductory notes and phrases (57). Some variation may be attributable to different vegetative structure of habitats where song is transmitted (171). Long Island, New York, birds (A. m. maritima) have lowest-pitched terminal buzzes, followed by those of southern Texas (A. m. fisheri) . Thus far, only birds on Long Island are known to be distinguishable by pitch of utterance. A. m. nigrescens and A. m. mirabilis had simplest Primary Songs, composed only of clicks and buzzes (57).

Only males give characteristic Primary Song. Bill is elevated, or thrown back, and opened widely. Head may bob. During bouts, songs initiated on average every 6.0 s ± 1.49 SD (range 4.3–10.0, n = 30).

Muted Song. During aggressive encounters, males may give muted (“whisper”) song (169, 161, 170). In contrast to normal song, muted song delivered with bill closed or nearly closed. Whisper song also was described for two other Seaside Sparrow populations (7, 170). Both referred to this song as a "Whisper Song." McDonald mentioned that when opponents are visible to one another, the "whisper song" is often accompanied by associated agonistic behavior, notably wing "raising and quivering" (170).

Flight Song. Males have well-developed Flight Song, 3–4 s long (Figure 5). Utter series of si and tuck notes while ascending to 5–15 m. At apogee, complete Primary Song phrase given; sometimes 1–2 abbreviated phrases added. Frequency in Florida: 1/10 min in 4-ha area with about 10 males in residence (170). In New York, males give Flight Song before arrival of females, but rate increases after females on territory (169). Flight Song is more frequent after morning peak of Primary Song (JSG).


Adults have at least 8 distinct calls, some of which (tchi and whinny) approach Primary Song in complexity. All given by both sexes throughout year (169, 161, 170).

Tsip (tic). See Figure 6A. Single note , moderately pitched, sibilant, and relatively short. Associated with mobbing (12 of 19 cases) or approach of predator (7 of 19). Rapidly repeated tsip notes (si twitter of 169) often given when nest is approached. Associated postures: sleeked plumage, crouch, wing-tail flicking, and bobbing (see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior: Communicative Interactions). Often given in flight, and incorporated into introductory segment of Flight Song.

Tuck. See Figure 6B. Short and abrupt, with wide frequency range . Given during intraspecific aggressive interactions (37 of 48 cases) and used to mob predators (5 of 48 cases); appears to be given when tendency to attack outweighs that to flee. Rate of calling varies greatly (35–165/min) (169). Associated postures: body plumage normal, crown feathers ruffled; little or no wing-tail flicking. Probably same as tsuck alarm call of Woolfenden (2), chip call of Werner and Woolfenden (7) and “nest departure call” of McDonald and Greenberg (172).

Seep (cee). High-pitched, sibilant whistle (170) that carries poorly. Usually uttered during chases (169, 7); also given as contact call by flocking adults and juveniles (2, 161) and by female during copulation (169).

Zuck. Figure 6C. Harsh, low-pitched growling call. Uttered during intensive territorial disputes (“attack call” of McDonald [173]). Often uttered by fighting individuals, especially those engaged in breast-to-breast fighting (169) (see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior: Physical Interactions). Functions as “threat” (mainly defensive). Given on ground and in flight. Also given by juveniles in flocks (170). Probably homologous to "squeaz" call of A. m. mirabilis (7).

Chew. . Sometimes repeated in short series (. From Post and Greenlaw (169). May be less intense version of zuck (with high frequencies absent) or distinct call that combines elements of zuck (threat) and jyuu (of tchi call, see below).

Whinny. Figure 6E. Nasal, whining vocalization with distinct quaver that varies in length and loudness. Appears to function mainly in intersexual communication, often in precopulatory context; often uttered in association with tchi (see below). Female uses it in presence of male (14 of 19 cases). Body postures: crouch, neck moderately extended, wings raised asymmetrically, body feathers moderately fluffed. In one instance, nearby male alternated muted songs with mate's Whinnies (169). The uncharacterized miscellaneous vocalization ("Eoo-eoo-eoo") of Werner and Woolfenden (Werner and Woolfenden1983) may be this distinctive, quavering call (JSG), which was heard quite frequently in New York.

Tchi. Figure 7. Transcribed as si si tchi-tchi-tchi-jyuu jyuu. Introductory tchi repeated as chatter, followed by downward slurred chatter, transliterated as jyuuu. Although two chatters are functionally related, they may be used separately and could be treated as distinct calls (JSG). A complex vocalization associated with flight or locomotion in presence of mate or intruder. Often accompanies wing-raise. Probably same vocalization Norris (174) described as jee-jee-jee-jee-jee-jeeeu-jeeeu (A. m. fisheri) and Trost (175) described as tu-tu-tu-tu-twi-twi-twi (A. m. nigrescens).

Scree (Zhree). Similar in structure to distress calls given by other emberizids (170). Given by adults, fledglings, and nestlings when handled (169, 170, 7).

Geographic Variation

Apart from the detailed analysis of the vocal repertoire of nominate Seaside Sparrow (169), similar but more abbreviated treatments were provided for A. m. mirabilis (Table 3 in 7) and A. m. peninsulae (170). The call repertoires of the three populations seem broadly similar, though McDonald did mention a variant of the "Seep" call ("eek") that was not heard in New York (JSG).

Hardy (57) examined geographic variation in primary song, describing songs of subspecies and illustrating them using sound spectrograms. His use of "phrase" signified each complete song, which may vary structurally in phrase components. Song phrases lasted 1.0–1.5 sec with length influenced mostly by number of introductory clicks or duration of the terminal buzz, though there was no significant trend or geographic pattern in song phrase length (57). The shortest song was generally that of A. m. mirabilis, but some phrases ranged to 1.2 sec. Songs of New York birds ranged from 1.2 to 1.5 sec. The song of A. m. nigrescens was very distinctive, simple, and "mostly noise." The song of A. m. mirabilis was also distinctive and more "insect-like" than that of A. m. nigrescens and consisted of 2 or 3 weak, well-spaced introductory clicks. In contrast to other subspecies, the terminal buzz in songs of A. m. macgillivraii was typically high-pitched. The songs of A. m. peninsulae tended to be most elaborate, often with a "course" central trill and a terminal buzz, and were more variable within and among individuals.


Males sing intermittently during overwintering period, whether on nesting area or on separate overwintering sites. Earliest singing by overwintering birds on Long Island, New York (A. m. maritima), 9 April (WP). Migratory males begin singing immediately on arrival at breeding grounds (e.g., 21 April on Long Island [WP, JSG] and 30 April on Rhode Island [176].

Singing most intensely early in the breeding period, before and just after mating. At Gulf Hammock, Florida, weather an important modifier of singing behavior. Early in spring, birds sing more as day warms, up to about 20°C. Later in breeding period, singing decreases with increase in temperature; at 32°C, practically all singing ceases (170). On warm, sunny days in New York, singing less frequent after 0900 h, continues somewhat later on overcast days.

Most singing halts during height of molt (August–September). In nonmigratory populations, singing resumes in early fall (for A. m. nigrescens, as early as 7 October; C. Trost, personal communication).

Daily Pattern of Vocalizing

Singing peaks occur just after dawn from about 0600 to 0800 h (48% of male's time spent singing) and at dusk from 1800 to 2000 h (38%) (169). At peak of breeding period, early-morning songs given in bouts (continuous period of singing) after which singer changes perch and resumes bout or initiates different activity. Song bout duration averages 120 s ± 137 SD (range 3–605, n = 40; WP). Single songs given at night.

Passive recording of several males of A. m. mirabilis on nearby territories in the Everglades by an acoustic array system over a period of five months found that singing primarily peaked in the morning between 06:00 and 08:00 hours local time and a secondary period occurred in the evening from 18:00 to 21:00, while singing was very infrequent during the middle of the day. Other patterns were that males do not vocalize on a day-to-day basis and singing occurred even when the habitat was inundated in their seasonal rainfall environment (177).

Places of Vocalizing

Frequently use exposed perches on tops of Spartina alterniflora, Phragmites, and groundsel (Baccharis). When predator approaches, individual moves to hidden position below, but occasionally continues singing. Seldom sing on perches > 3 m. In New York, wooden stakes 1–1.5 m high were used by most members of a marked population of > 100 males. In South Carolina over 6 years, stakes of the same height and distribution were used by only 1 of 64 males. Period spent singing from single perch varies from < 1 min to nearly 8 min. Sometimes sings while foraging on ground.

Sex Differences

Rarely, females give songlike vocalization, probably homologous to Primary Song. Transliterated as tijeep, it has same tone as trill of Primary Song. In 3 observed instances, given with wing raise (see Behavior: Agonistic Behavior), just before or after copulation (169)

Repertoire and Delivery of Songs

In northern Florida, individual males may sing 2–4 song types (57); most song types shared among males within population (170). Males sing throughout breeding period. Song rate varies with stage of nesting: high during pre-pairing and incubation, low during nestling and fledgling stages. Song rate within a single bout: Gulf Hammock, Florida, 6–9 songs/min (170); Oak Beach, New York, 10.6/min (169). Over 1-hour period in New Jersey, song rate 6.6/min (2). Countersinging is frequent and may involve up to 4 birds and an increase in song rate of individuals. Countersinging birds usually alternate songs but occasionally overlap (170).

Social Context and Presumed Functions of Vocalizations

When countersinging, opposing males usually sing different song types. During experimental broadcasts of songs, territorial male ignores song of neighbor played at edge of territory but responds vigorously to playback of own song, apparently regarding it as that of new bird. Males do not consistently change song patterns after changing song perches (170).

At start of breeding period, temporarily muted males were unable to attract mates, but after their voice was regained, most could. In middle of breeding period, loss of voice led to loss of mates; territories also shrank or were lost. After return of singing ability, altered males able to regain old territories or establish new ones. When territorial male was unable to sing, intrusion rate went up, and rate of close-range visual displaying, including fighting, increased (173).

Evidence supports a tentative conclusion that some inexperienced males of A. m. mirabilis in the Florida Everglades make use of a social information cue (broadcast song) to settle in suitable habitat unoccupied by experienced males (128). Male sparrows in this resident population, which typically begin to establish territories in early February, may practice a mixed strategy in making habitat quality decisions guiding settlement that includes philopatry by experienced males and response to conspecific songs of established males by näive yearling males. The hypothesis that some males in this metapopulation may use late-season song as a cue for selecting a territory in the following year was not tested. Similar studies have not been performed in other populations.

Nonvocal Sounds

None reported.

Recommended Citation

Greenlaw, J. S., W. G. Shriver, and W. Post (2022). Seaside Sparrow (Ammospiza maritima), version 2.0. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.seaspa.02