Santa Barbara Song Sparrow

A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) feeding on the ground.
While no photographs are known to exist of the extinct Santa Barbara Song Sparrow, it resembled this mainland song sparrow. Ken Thomas/Wikimedia

What was it?

The Santa Barbara Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia graminea, sensu) was a subspecies of song sparrow that was most closely related to the Channel Island Song Sparrow ( Melospiza melodia graminea).

Where did it live?

The Santa Barbara Song Sparrow was known to exist only on 639-acre Santa Barbara Island (The smallest of the Channel Islands) in Los Angeles County, California.

The sparrow's natural habitat on the island was much like the habitat of other species of song sparrow, which are generally abundant and adaptable on the mainland United States. Habitat components on the island included:

  • Thickets of shrubs like sagebrush and other scrubby vegetation for nesting, shelter (cover), and foraging for food
  • Giant Coreopsis (Coreopsis gigantean), also called the "tree sunflower," was an important native plant to song sparrows for nesting, cover, and food
  • Specifically on Santa Barbara Island, dense grasslands provided critical habitat
  • Other endemic plants with which the sparrow evolved were the Santa Barbara Island live-forever, shrubby buckwheat, and chickory
  • Standing or running fresh water or a consistent source of moisture from fog or dew

What did it eat?

In general, song sparrows are known to frequently forage on the ground and also in low vegetation where they are protected from predators by thickets and shrubs. Like other song sparrow species, the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow ate:

  • A variety of plant seeds
  • Insects (including beetles, caterpillars, bees, ants and wasps, and flies) were particularly important components of the sparrow's diet during periods of nesting and rearing of young in the spring

What did it look like?

The Santa Barbara Song Sparrow resembled other similar subspecies and is described as most closely resembling the Heermann's Song Sparrow ( Melospiza melodia heermanni).

The Santa Barbara Song Sparrow was one of the smallest song sparrow subspecies and was characterized by a particularly gray back with dark streaks (most song sparrows are browner in color with dark streaks).

In general, a song sparrow's breast and belly are white with dark streaking and a dark brown spot in the middle of the breast. It has a brown-capped head and a long, brown tail that is rounded on the end. The sparrow's face is gray and streaked.

What happened to it?

In the first half of the 20th century, sparrow nesting habitat (scrub vegetation) on Santa Barbara Island began disappearing as a result of clearing land for farming and from browsing by introduced goats, European rabbits, and New Zealand red rabbits. Unnatural predation also threatened sparrows during this time, after the introduction of domestic cats to the island. The sparrow's natural predators included the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius), Common Raven (Corvus corax), and Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus).

Even with these new challenges to its survival, the song sparrows maintained a viable population through the summer of 1958.

Unfortunately, a large fire in 1959 destroyed most of the sparrows' remaining habitat. The birds are thought to have been extirpated from the island during the 1960s because years of intensive surveys and monitoring throughout the 1990s did not reveal any resident song sparrows on the island.

When was it declared extinct?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially determined that the Santa Barbara Song Sparrow was extinct and removed it from the endangered species list on October 12, 1983.

According to the National Park Service, "The recovery of native vegetation, along with the removal of non-native predators, has aided in the reestablishment of nesting land birds [on Santa Barbara Island]. Today there are 14 land birds that nest annually on the island. Three of these, the horned lark, orange-crowned warbler, and house finch, are endemic subspecies found only on Santa Barbara Island. Unfortunately, the island's recovery did not come soon enough for the endemic Santa Barbara Island song sparrow. The destruction of this sparrow's sagebrush and coreopsis nesting habitat and the presence of feral cats led to the extinction of this species in the 1960s. This sparrow, which was found only on Santa Barbara Island and is now lost forever."