Emberizidae – Buntings, New World Sparrows & Allies

Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis ©James Lowen Website

The Emberizidae are a large family of seed-eating passerine birds with distinctively finch-like bills.

In Europe, most species are called buntings. In North America, most of the species in this family are known as (American) sparrows, but these birds are not closely related to the (Old World) sparrows, in the family Passeridae. The family also includes the North American birds known as juncos and towhees.

It was hypothesised that the family Emberizidae may have originated in South America and spread first into North America before crossing into eastern Asia and continuing to move west. This would explain the comparative paucity of emberizid species in Europe and Africa compared to the Americas. However, a DNA sequence-based study of passerines concluded emberizids spread from North to South America.

As with several other passerine families, the taxonomic treatment of this family’s members is currently in a state of flux. Many genera in South and Central America are, in fact, more closely related to several different tanager clades, and at least one tanager genus (Chlorospingus) may belong here in the Emberizidae.

Emberizids are small birds, typically around 15cm in length, with finch-like bills and nine primary feathers. The family ranges in size from the Sporophila seedeaters, the smaller species of which are about 10 cm and weigh 9–10gm, to Abert’s Towhee, at 24cm, and the shorter-tailed, but chunkier Canyon Towhee, at 54gm. They live in a variety of habitats, including woodland, brush, marsh, and grassland. The Old World species tend to have brown-streaked plumage, although some New World species can be very brightly coloured. Many species have distinctive head patterns.

Their diet consists mainly of seeds, but may be supplemented with insects, especially when feeding their young.

The habits of emberizids are similar to those of finches, with which they sometimes used to be grouped. Older sources may place some emberizids in the Fringillidae family, and the common names of some emberizids still refer to them as finches. With a few exceptions, emberizids build cup-shaped nests from grasses and other plant fibres, and are monogamous.

According to the IOC there are 181 different species in this family, which are:

Crested Bunting Emberiza lathami
Slaty Bunting Emberiza siemsseni
Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella
Pine Bunting Emberiza leucocephalos
Rock Bunting Emberiza cia
Godlewski’s Bunting Emberiza godlewskii
Meadow Bunting Emberiza cioides
White-capped Bunting Emberiza stewarti
Jankowski’s Bunting Emberiza jankowskii
Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani
Cinereous Bunting Emberiza cineracea
Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana
Cretzschmar’s Bunting Emberiza caesia
Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus
Striolated Bunting Emberiza striolata
House Bunting Emberiza sahari
Lark-like Bunting Emberiza impetuani
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting Emberiza tahapisi
Gosling’s Bunting Emberiza goslingi
Socotra Bunting Emberiza socotrana
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis
Vincent’s Bunting Emberiza vincenti
Tristram’s Bunting Emberiza tristrami
Chestnut-eared Bunting Emberiza fucata
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla
Yellow-browed Bunting Emberiza chrysophrys
Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica
Yellow-throated Bunting Emberiza elegans
Yellow-breasted Bunting Emberiza aureola
Somali Bunting Emberiza poliopleura
Golden-breasted Bunting Emberiza flaviventris
Brown-rumped Bunting Emberiza affinis
Cabanis’s Bunting Emberiza cabanisi
Chestnut Bunting Emberiza rutila
Tibetan Bunting Emberiza koslowi
Black-headed Bunting Emberiza melanocephala
Red-headed Bunting Emberiza bruniceps
Yellow Bunting Emberiza sulphurata
Black-faced Bunting Emberiza spodocephala
Grey Bunting Emberiza variabilis
Pallas’s Reed Bunting Emberiza pallasi
Japanese Reed Bunting Emberiza yessoensis
Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

Lark Bunting Calamospiza melanocorys

Red Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca
Sooty Fox Sparrow Passerella unalaschcensis
Slate-colored Fox Sparrow Passerella schistacea
Thick-billed Fox Sparrow Passerella megarhyncha

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia
Lincoln’s Sparrow Melospiza lincolnii
Swamp Sparrow Melospiza georgiana

Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis
Harris’s Sparrow Zonotrichia querula
White-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia leucophrys
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Golden-crowned Sparrow Zonotrichia atricapilla

Volcano Junco Junco vulcani
Dark-eyed Junco Junco hyemalis
Guadalupe Junco Junco insularis
Yellow-eyed Junco Junco phaeonotus

Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis

Seaside Sparrow Ammodramus maritimus
Nelson’s Sparrow Ammodramus nelsoni
Saltmarsh Sparrow Ammodramus caudacutus
Le Conte’s Sparrow Ammodramus leconteii
Baird’s Sparrow Ammodramus bairdii
Henslow’s Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii
Grasshopper Sparrow Ammodramus savannarum
Grassland Sparrow Ammodramus humeralis
Yellow-browed Sparrow Ammodramus aurifrons

Sierra Madre Sparrow Xenospiza baileyi

American Tree Sparrow Spizelloides arborea

Chipping Sparrow Spizella passerina
Field Sparrow Spizella pusilla
Worthen’s Sparrow Spizella wortheni
Black-chinned Sparrow Spizella atrogularis
Clay-colored Sparrow Spizella pallida
Brewer’s Sparrow Spizella breweri

Vesper Sparrow Pooecetes gramineus

Lark Sparrow Chondestes grammacus

Five-striped Sparrow Amphispiza quinquestriata
Black-throated Sparrow Amphispiza bilineata

Sagebrush Sparrow Artemisiospiza nevadensis
Bell’s Sparrow Artemisiospiza belli

Tumbes Sparrow Rhynchospiza stolzmanni
Stripe-capped Sparrow Rhynchospiza strigiceps

Stripe-headed Sparrow Peucaea ruficauda
Black-chested Sparrow Peucaea humeralis
Bridled Sparrow Peucaea mystacalis
Cinnamon-tailed Sparrow Peucaea sumichrasti
Rufous-winged Sparrow Peucaea carpalis
Cassin’s Sparrow Peucaea cassinii
Bachman’s Sparrow Peucaea aestivalis
Botteri’s Sparrow Peucaea botterii

Rufous-crowned Sparrow Aimophila ruficeps
Rusty Sparrow Aimophila rufescens
Oaxaca Sparrow Aimophila notosticta

Zapata Sparrow Torreornis inexpectata

Striped Sparrow Oriturus superciliosus

Blue Finch Porphyrospiza caerulescens

Green-tailed Towhee Pipilo chlorurus
Collared Towhee Pipilo ocai
Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus
Eastern Towhee Pipilo erythrophthalmus
Bermuda Towhee Pipilo naufragus

White-throated Towhee Melozone albicollis
Canyon Towhee Melozone fusca
California Towhee Melozone crissalis
Abert’s Towhee Melozone aberti
Rusty-crowned Ground Sparrow Melozone kieneri
Prevost’s Ground Sparrow Melozone biarcuata
Cabanis’s Ground Sparrow Melozone cabanisi
White-eared Ground Sparrow Melozone leucotis

Olive Sparrow Arremonops rufivirgatus
Tocuyo Sparrow Arremonops tocuyensis
Green-backed Sparrow Arremonops chloronotus
Black-striped Sparrow Arremonops conirostris

Pectoral Sparrow Arremon taciturnus
Half-collared Sparrow Arremon semitorquatus
Sao Francisco Sparrow Arremon franciscanus
Saffron-billed Sparrow Arremon flavirostris
Orange-billed Sparrow Arremon aurantiirostris
Golden-winged Sparrow Arremon schlegeli
Black-capped Sparrow Arremon abeillei
Chestnut-capped Brushfinch Arremon brunneinucha
Green-striped Brushfinch Arremon virenticeps
Black-headed Brushfinch Arremon atricapillus
Costa Rican Brushfinch Arremon costaricensis
White-browed Brushfinch Arremon torquatus
Sierra Nevada Brushfinch Arremon basilicus
Perija Brushfinch Arremon perijanus
Grey-browed Brushfinch Arremon assimilis
Caracas Brushfinch Arremon phaeopleurus
Paria Brushfinch Arremon phygas
Sooty-faced Finch Arremon crassirostris
Olive Finch Arremon castaneiceps

Large-footed Finch Pezopetes capitalis

Rufous-capped Brushfinch Atlapetes pileatus
Moustached Brushfinch Atlapetes albofrenatus
Merida Brushfinch Atlapetes meridae
Ochre-breasted Brushfinch Atlapetes semirufus
Tepui Brushfinch Atlapetes personatus
White-naped Brushfinch Atlapetes albinucha
Santa Marta Brushfinch Atlapetes melanocephalus
Pale-naped Brushfinch Atlapetes pallidinucha
Yellow-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes flaviceps
Dusky-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes fuscoolivaceus
Choco Brushfinch Atlapetes crassus
Tricolored Brushfinch Atlapetes tricolor
White-rimmed Brushfinch Atlapetes leucopis
Yellow-breasted Brushfinch Atlapetes latinuchus
Black-fronted Brushfinch Atlapetes nigrifrons
Antioquia Brushfinch Atlapetes blancae
Rufous-eared Brushfinch Atlapetes rufigenis
Apurimac Brushfinch Atlapetes forbesi
Black-spectacled Brushfinch Atlapetes melanopsis
Slaty Brushfinch Atlapetes schistaceus
White-winged Brushfinch Atlapetes leucopterus
White-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes albiceps
Pale-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes pallidiceps
Bay-crowned Brushfinch Atlapetes seebohmi
Rusty-bellied Brushfinch Atlapetes nationi
Cuzco Brushfinch Atlapetes canigenis
Vilcabamba Brushfinch Atlapetes terborghi
Grey-eared Brushfinch Atlapetes melanolaemus
Bolivian Brushfinch Atlapetes rufinucha
Fulvous-headed Brushfinch Atlapetes fulviceps
Yellow-striped Brushfinch Atlapetes citrinellus

Yellow-thighed Finch Pselliophorus tibialis
Yellow-green Finch Pselliophorus luteoviridis

Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

Common Bush Tanager Chlorospingus flavopectus
Tacarcuna Bush Tanager Chlorospingus tacarcunae
Pirre Bush Tanager Chlorospingus inornatus
Dusky Bush Tanager Chlorospingus semifuscus
Sooty-capped Bush Tanager Chlorospingus pileatus
Yellow-whiskered Bush Tanager Chlorospingus parvirostris
Yellow-throated Bush Tanager Chlorospingus flavigularis
Yellow-green Bush Tanager Chlorospingus flavovirens
Ashy-throated Bush Tanager Chlorospingus canigularis

Species Links
  • Bell's Sparrow Artemisiospiza belli

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile
  • Bell's Sparrow Artemisiospiza belli

    Species Account
  • Bell's Sparrow Artemisiospiza belli

    Cornell Species Account
    The Bell’s Sparrow is a neat, gray-headed sparrow emblematic of California’s coastal sage and chaparral. They also occur in Baja California, the Mojave Desert, and on San Clemente Island, California (a federally threatened subspecies).
  • Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

    IUCN Species Status
    In Europe, the breeding population is estimated to number 4,060,000-7,020,000 pairs, which equates to 8,130,000-14,000,000 mature individuals (BirdLife International 2015).
  • Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

    Species Account
    The common reed bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus) is a passerine bird in the bunting family Emberizidae, a group now separated by most modern authors from the finches, Fringillidae. The genus name Emberiza is from Old German Embritz, a bunting. The specific schoeniclus is from Ancient Greek skhoiniklos, a now unknown waterside bird
  • Common Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus

    RSPB Species Account
    Sparrow-sized but slim and with a long, deeply notched tail, the male has a black head, white collar and a drooping moustache. Females and winter males have a streaked head. In flight the tail looks black with broad, white edges.
  • Henslow's Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii

    Cornell Species Account
    An uncommon and famously inconspicuous bird, the Henslow's Sparrow breeds in weedy grasslands of the east-central United States. Its population numbers have declined steadily over the past few decades, largely because of habitat loss.
  • Henslow's Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii

    Species Account
    Adults have streaked brown upperparts with a light brown breast with streaks, a white belly and a white throat. They have a pale stripe on the crown with a dark stripe on each side, an olive face and neck, rust-coloured wings and a short dark forked tail.
  • Henslow's Sparrow Ammodramus henslowii

    IUCN Species Status
    This species has undergone a large and statistically significant decrease over the last 40 years in North America...
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis

    IUCN Species Status
    Partners in Flight estimate the total population to number 5,000,000-50,000,000 individuals (A. Panjabi in litt. 2008).
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis

    Species Account
    The rufous-collared sparrow (Zonotrichia capensis) is an American sparrow found in a wide range of habitats, often near humans, from the extreme south-east of Mexico to Tierra del Fuego, and on the island of Hispaniola.
  • Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis

    Cornell Species Account
    The Rufous-collard Sparrow is a ubiquitous resident of lowland and montane scrub from Mexico south to Tierra del Fuego.
  • Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

    Species Account
    The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a medium-sized American sparrow. Among the native sparrows in North America, it is easily one of the most abundant, variable and adaptable species.
  • Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

    Cornell Species Account
    A rich, russet-and-gray bird with bold streaks down its white chest, the Song Sparrow is one of the most familiar North American sparrows.
  • White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

    BirdLife Species Account
    BirdLife species profile
  • White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

    Species Account
    The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is a passerine bird of the American sparrow family Emberizidae.
  • White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis

    Cornell Species Account
    Crisp facial markings make the White-throated Sparrow an attractive bird as well as a hopping, flying anatomy lesson
  • Worthen's Sparrow Spizella wortheni

    Species Account
    Worthen's sparrow (Spizella wortheni) is a species of American sparrow that is endemic to northeastern Mexico. It was first described by Robert Ridgway in 1884 and named for the American naturalist Charles K. Worthen.[2] This small bird has been listed as endangered by the IUCN since 1994.
  • Worthen's Sparrow Spizella wortheni

    IUCN Species Status
    12.5-14 cm. Dull sparrow with distinctive head pattern. Grey head with rufous crown (not extending on to forehead) and often brownish postocular stripe and wash on auriculars.
  • Worthen's Sparrow Spizella wortheni

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Worthen's Sparrow Spizella wortheni

    Cornell Species Account
    Endemic to Mexico with its stronghold in the Chihuahuan Desert of the northern plateau, Worthen’s Sparrow has been recorded in at least eight states from San Luis Potosí, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas south to Puebla and Veracruz.
  • Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

    IUCN Species Status
  • Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

    Conservation project…
  • Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

    Species Account
    The yellow cardinal (Gubernatrix cristata) is a species of bird in the family Thraupidae. Sometimes classified in the bunting and American sparrow family Emberizidae, more recent studies have shown it to belong with the tanagers. It is the only member of its genus, Gubernatrix.
  • Yellow Cardinal Gubernatrix cristata

    Cornell Species Account
    The Yellow Cardinal is prized as a songster and as a cage bird. Sadly it has decreased enormously in abundance in the last few decades. The thorn scrub and forest edge habitat this bird prefers has declined, but not to the level to blame habitat conversion for this species decline.
  • Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

    Species Account
    Image + The Yellowhammer is a bunting found throughout most of Europe. It is a bird of farmland and the countryside and has suffered declining numbers in recent years…
  • Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

    Species Account
    Sound archive and distribution map
  • Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

    Species Account
    The yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella) is a passerine bird in the bunting family that is native to Eurasia and introduced to New Zealand, Australia, the Falkland Islands, and South Africa.
  • Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

    RSPB Species Account
    Males are unmistakeable with a bright yellow head and underparts, brown back streaked with black, and chestnut rump. In flight it shows white outer tail feathers. Often seen perched on top of a hedge or bush, singing. Its recent population decline make it a Red List species.
Number of Species
  • Number of bird species: 181

Useful Reading
  • A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada

    by James Rising - 356 pages, 27 col plates, line illus, maps. Academic Press (Via A & C Black) 1996 ISBN: 0125889712 Buy this book from NHBS.com

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