Rufous-collared Sparrow

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Is the Rufous-collared Sparrow right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: N/A

Scientific name: Zonotrichia capensis

The basics:
The Rufous-collared Sparrow is an adaptable, widespread, and highly successful New World sparrow noted for its boldness around humans. While it is not well-known to most pet owners in the United States, it is a popular songbird in Brazil. Before you purchase one of these charming birds, check your local laws. These birds are protected under Brazilian and other national and international laws. Do not accept Rufous-collared Sparrows from unknown sources. It seems likely that a number of the birds kept in captivity were taken illegally from the wild.

One of the most visible birds of Central and South America, this sparrow thrives in cities as well as high mountain habitat. There may be as many as 29 subspecies of this diverse bird, which has attracted much scientific study because of the “dialects” of the different songs that it sings in its different habitats. This little bird is adaptable. While it is often thought of as a bird of the mountains, it can be found at sea level and all the way up to a stunning 4,000 meters. However, it likes open areas, and it does avoid heavily forested regions, such as primary forest in the Amazon River basin. Throw open your window to look out into a courtyard in South or Central America, and that's where you'll see this charming little bird.

An interesting note: The Rufous-collared Sparrow is a favorite host of the much larger Shiny Cowbird, a parasitic species which lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. The sparrow never seems to notice anything much amiss and continues to feed the huge cowbird baby even after it fledges, just as it would its own youngsters. Fortunately, this parasitism doesn't seem to have harmed the Rufous-collared Sparrow, since the species continues to thrive.

A handsome sparrow with a crest and a thick orangey-red “rufous” collar around the nape of its neck

20 - 25 grams (0.7 - 0.9 oz.)

Average size:
13 - 15 centimeters (5 - 6 in.)

5 - 10 years

Behavior / temperament:
Unlike the Old World sparrows who are held mostly for their handsome plumage rather than their somewhat chirpy song, the Rufous-collared Sparrow is an admired singer with a number of different songs, depending on its subspecies and its background. Keep the pairs apart from other birds and pets, and let the male express his natural aggression through song, rather than giving him a chance to attack others. Also avoid having mirrors or shiny objects in the cage, because a hormonal male will attack those items.

Unlike some of the classic exotic songbirds, such as European Bullfinch, the Rufous-collared Sparrow cannot be expected to learn a human tune. Indeed, Helmut Sick, author of Birds of Brazil: A Natural History suggested that this sparrow falls into a group of New World sparrows that best learns the songs of its own subspecies from its own region. However, a bird started young enough may learn the song of a different subspecies, if it can't hear its own father singing. Some rare individuals sing a night song which is distinctly different from the normal song.

The Rufous-collared Sparrow is a territorial pair-bond bird. House a pair in its own flight or cage, giving the birds plenty of room to fly and exercise. They spend a lot of time on the ground, so keep it clean. If you have an easy-to-wash concrete or tile floor, provide some shallow pans of clean sand or dirt for the birds to kick around in, as well as plenty of bird-safe potted plants. This species is a tough bird often found at altitude, so you may not need to be particularly worried about cooler temperatures. However, you should be certain that the birds always have a way to get out of direct sunlight or extreme heat.

The Rufous-collared Sparrow, as a relative of our well-known feeder and yard birds, the White-throated and White-crowned Sparrow, is a grass, seed, and grain eater that also picks up insects like termites for extra protein. Like its northern relatives, it tends to feed on the ground. However, don't let its easy-going nature deceive you into skimping on your bird's diet. A cheap “wild bird seed mix” is fine for a feeder treat, but it is cruel to make it your pet's entire diet. Choose a high quality seed mix, fresh enough to sprout, and be sure to provide a chopped salad including plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and healthy greens. If the sparrow accepts a high quality finch pellet, that's great, but you should also provide mealworms or other healthy insect treats from time to time.

Written by Elaine Radford

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