Species Profile

Coastal Vesper Sparrow

Scientific Name: Pooecetes gramineus affinis
Other/Previous Names: Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies
Taxonomy Group: Birds
COSEWIC Range: British Columbia
COSEWIC Assessment Date and Status Change: April 2018
COSEWIC Status: Endangered
COSEWIC Status Criteria: A2ac; B1ab(i,ii,iii,iv,v)+2ab(i,ii,iii,iv,v); C2a(i); D1
COSEWIC Reason for Designation: This songbird is a distinct subspecies limited to the Pacific coastal plains of western North America, breeding in sparsely vegetated grasslands with scattered trees or shrubs and patches of bare soil. Its numbers are declining throughout its range, due to loss and degradation of breeding and wintering habitat. Despite targetted surveys, no breeding attempts have been confirmed in Canada since 2014, and the current Canadian population is near zero. Remaining patches of suitable nesting habitat are scarce on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and continue to decline in extent and quality.
COSEWIC History of Status Designation: Designated Endangered in April 2006.  Status re-examined and confirmed in April 2018.
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Endangered
Date of Listing (yyyy-mm-dd): 2007-12-13

Please note that this information is provided for general information purposes only. For the most up to date and accurate list of species listed under the Species at Risk Act, please see the Justice Laws Website.

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Quick Links: | Taxonomy | Description | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Initiatives | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Taxonomy

There are four recognized Vesper Sparrow subspecies, three of which nest in Canada. The affinis subspecies is the rarest Vesper Sparrow subspecies, and it is the only one found west of the Cascade mountain range.

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Description

The Vesper Sparrow is a medium-sized passerine that can be identified by the chestnut spot on its wings, the white feathers that line the outer edge of its tail, and its whitish eye-ring. The upperparts are greyish brown with dark brown streaks. The underparts are white (occasionally buff coloured) with dark streaks. There are no significant differences between males and females. Although similar to adults, juveniles are duller in appearance and their wings lack the chestnut spot.

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Distribution and Population

The Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies occurs west of the Cascades in southwestern British Columbia, in western Washington, in Oregon, and in northwestern California. In Canada, the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies has only been reported on southeastern Vancouver Island and in the Lower Fraser Valley. These birds used to nest on Vancouver Island, from the Englishman River estuary in the north to Cobble Meadows and Mill Bay in the south, and locally in the Fraser Lowland. Today, the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies is considered an extremely rare summer visitor to the Fraser Lowland. The only known nesting population is located at the Nanaimo Airport, approximately 20 km south of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Due to its proximity to the Washington State population, this affinis population would be an extension of the Washington population. The Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies winters in California. Although it is not known how many Vesper Sparrows affinis subspecies once nested in Canada, the population is believed to have declined; this is based on the fact that this songbird now has a single breeding site (Nanaimo Airport), where between five and ten pairs make up the total population. The Washington and Oregon populations are also declining.

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Habitat

The Vesper Sparrow nests on the ground in sparsely vegetated grassland habitats with scattered trees and shrubs. Mixed-height vegetation is extremely important to this bird, which needs high perches for singing and shorter vegetation for foraging. Although the Vesper Sparrow appears to prefer grasslands far from urban areas, it is also known to use fence posts, wire fences, and other human-made structures for singing perches. In British Columbia, Nanaimo Airport was in 2006 one of the rare sites in this region with a large enough area of suitable habitat.

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Biology

The Vesper sparrow nests on the ground. The female builds the nest alone. To help conceal the nest from predators, it is usually located near a tuft of vegetation. In British Columbia, the breeding season generally begins in late April and extends to mid-July, although it may last until early August if a second clutch is laid. The female will generally lay three to six eggs that she incubates alone, for the most part, for 11 to 14 days. Both parents feed the nestlings. The nestlings leave the nest after approximately 10 days. This species appears to be extremely faithful to its breeding site. During breeding season, these birds feed mainly on insects, although they also eat seeds. They primarily forage in low vegetation while walking or hopping. They may also jump or hover to glean insects from taller vegetation. The Vesper Sparrow can adapt to modified habitats. However, there is an increased risk of nest destruction due to frequent mowing and other human disturbance of these areas. In this region, potential predators of eggs, nestlings, and adults include certain birds of prey (Cooper’s Hawk, Merlin, Northwestern Crow, Common Raven, etc.), several mammals (Coyote, Red Fox, Raccoon, skunk, Domestic Dog, etc.), and certain snakes. However, on Vancouver Island, Domestic Cats are, without a doubt, this species’ main predator. Most birds leave for California before mid-October. The Vesper Sparrow generally migrates at night in small flocks.

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Threats

Habitat loss or degradation is the main threat to populations of the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies. Modern farming practices and urbanization are among the factors that lead to the degradation of this bird’s habitat. Suitable habitats on southeastern Vancouver Island and in the Lower Fraser Valley have become extremely rare. Predation, particularly by Domestic Cats which abound in urban areas, also poses a threat. Given the limited number of individuals and the fact that its habitat is restricted to a single site, the Canadian population is particularly vulnerable to extirpation. A single event, such as an infrastructure development project on the grounds of the airport, could eradicate this population.

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Protection

Federal Protection

The Coastal Vesper Sparrow is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

The Vesper Sparrow is protected under the federal Migratory Birds Convention Act, 1994. This law makes it an offence to disturb, kill, or collect adults, juveniles, and eggs. The affinis subspecies is also protected under the British Columbia Wildlife Act, which prohibits hunting, trapping, poisoning, or any other destruction of wildlife, as well as the disturbance or destruction of eggs and nests.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.

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Recovery Initiatives

Status of Recovery Planning

Recovery Strategies :

Name Amended Recovery Strategy for the Horned Lark strigata subspecies (Eremophila alpestris strigata) and Recovery Strategy for the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies (Pooecetes gramineus affinis) in Canada
Status First posting on SAR registry

Name *Amended Recovery Strategy for the Horned Lark strigata subspecies (Eremophila alpestris strigata) and Recovery Strategy for the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies (Pooecetes gramineus affinis) in Canada
Status Final posting on SAR registry

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Recovery Team

Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team

  • Conan Webb - Chair/Contact - Parks Canada
    Phone: 250-478-5153  Send Email

Horned Lark strigata subspecies and Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies Recovery Team

  • Megan Harrison - Chair/Contact - Environment Canada
    Phone: 604-350-1989  Fax: 604-946-7022  Send Email

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Documents

PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

17 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Coastal Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus affinis) in Canada (2018-12-14)

    The Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies (Pooecetes gramineus affinis) is more commonly known as Coastal Vesper Sparrow, or as Oregon Vesper Sparrow in the United States. It is the rarest of the three subspecies of Vesper Sparrow that breed in Canada, with a disjunct population and a restricted range. It is a medium-sized sparrow with distinctive chestnut wing coverts, white outer tail feathers and a white eye ring. It is one of several taxa restricted to the coastal savannahs and grasslands of the west coast of North America. Note: This COSEWIC assessment was received by the Minister on October 15th, 2018.
  • COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies Pooecetes gramineus affinis in Canada (2006-08-29)

    Three subspecies of Vesper Sparrows breed in Canada. The Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies Pooecetes gramineus affinis, is the rarest subspecies, with a disjunct population and a restricted range. The other recognized subspecies have much larger, stable populations. The Vesper Sparrow is a relatively large sparrow with distinctive chestnut wing coverts, white outer tail feathers and a white eye ring.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Coastal Vesper Sparrow (2019-01-11)

    This songbird is a distinct subspecies limited to the Pacific coastal plains of western North America, breeding in sparsely vegetated grasslands with scattered trees or shrubs and patches of bare soil. Its numbers are declining throughout its range, due to loss and degradation of breeding and wintering habitat. Despite targetted surveys, no breeding attempts have been confirmed in Canada since 2014, and the current Canadian population is near zero. Remaining patches of suitable nesting habitat are scarce on southeastern Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland of British Columbia and continue to decline in extent and quality.
  • Response Statements - Vesper Sparrow affinis subspecies (2006-11-29)

    This songbird, a subspecies of the Vesper Sparrow, is found in Canada only in coastal grasslands in the extreme southwestern corner of British Columbia, where it now breeds only at one site with a population of about 5 pairs. The taxon is declining in the United States as well, where it has a restricted distribution in western Washington and Oregon. Habitat loss is the greatest threat, both through direct destruction of habitat for urban development and through invasion by alien plant species.

Recovery Strategies

Orders

  • Order Acknowledging Receipt of the Assessments Done Pursuant to Subsection 23(1) of the Act (2007) (2007-05-16)

    This Order acknowledges receipt by the Governor in Council of the assessments of the status of 40 species done pursuant to paragraph 15(1)(a) and in accordance with subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act (SARA) by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). The purpose of SARA is to prevent wildlife species from being extirpated or becoming extinct, to provide for the recovery of wildlife species that are extirpated, endangered or threatened as a result of human activity and to manage species of special concern to prevent them from becoming endangered or threatened.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (volume 141, number 26, December 13, 2007) (2007-12-26)

    Her Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, pursuant to section 27 of the Species at Risk Act, hereby makes the annexed Order Amending Schedules 1 to 3 to the Species at Risk Act.
  • Order Amending Schedule 1 to the Species at Risk Act (Volume 155, Number 10, May 2021) (2021-05-12)

    Her Excellency the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the Minister of the Environment, acknowledges receipt, on the making of this Order, of the assessments done pursuant to subsection 23(1) of the Species at Risk Act, by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) with respect to the species set out in the annexed schedule.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2006 (2006-08-30)

    2006 Annual Report to the The Minister of the Environment and the Canadian Endangered Species Conservation Council (CESCC) from the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.
  • COSEWIC Annual Report 2017 to 2018 (2018-10-15)

    Over the past year COSEWIC assessed a total of 90 wildlife species and 11 of these were assigned a status of Not at Risk. Of these 90, COSEWIC re-examined the status of 38 wildlife species; of these, the majority (87%) were reassessed at the same or lower level of risk. To date and with the submission of this report, COSEWIC’s assessments now include 771 wildlife species in various risk categories including 338 Endangered, 183 Threatened, 228 Special Concern, and 22 Extirpated (i.e. no longer found in the wild in Canada). In addition, 18 wildlife species have been assessed as Extinct, and a total of 59 wildlife species have also been designated as Data Deficient and 197 have been assessed and assigned Not at Risk status.

Permits and Related Agreements

  • Explanation for issuing permit(#10663 (ext.1)), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2008-05-26)

    Capture and mark migratory birds. Justification for permits: 10732
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#10663 (ext.2)), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2010-12-20)

    Capture and banding of birds.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#BC-09-0317), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2009-05-21)

    The objectives of the project are 1) to determine whether there is evidence of genetic structural difference between the affinis and confinis subspecies of Vesper Sparrow and 2) to determine whether the putative affinis population breeding at the Vancouver Island site is indeed affinis. Six to ten Vesper Sparrows from each of both the Vancouver Island and BC southern interior populations will be attracted, using playback of conspecific vocalizations, and captured in mist-nets by qualified professionals. The birds being captured at Airports are being colour-marked, using 3 coloured plastic leg bands and a single aluminum USFWS numbered band (under SARA-compliant permit from the Banding Office). After banding, a single rectrix feather will be extracted by gently pulling on the feather from the base, and subsequently released. It is important to extract the entire feather, because the material at the base of the feather provides the highest quality genetic material. Extraction of passerine rectrices is a common procedure in passerine studies (e.g. genetics, stable isotopes), does not result in any particular stress for the bird, and there is no evidence suggesting that this procedure negatively impacts future survival or productivity. For the southern interior population, only the feather extraction will be performed, and birds will subsequently be released immediately. Feather samples will be collected in plastic bags and a tag detailing location, date and time, sex, USFWS band number / leg band colour combination (if applicable) will be included with the feather sample. Birds will be handled for a maximum of 10-15 minutes including mist net capture.
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#BC-10-0046), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2011-05-20)

     An estimate of 6-10 Vesper Sparrows will have 1-2 feathers taken for analysis.  An estimate of 30 Vesper Sparrow subspecies confinis 1-2 feathers to be taken for analysis
  • Explanation for issuing permit(#BC-12-0044), persuant to the provisions of section 74 of SARA (2011-05-21)

     An estimate of 6-10 Vesper Sparrows will have 1-2 feathers taken for analysis.  An estimate of 10-30 Vesper Sparrow subspecies confinis 1-2 feathers to be taken for analysis

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act Terrestrial Species: December 2006 (2006-12-28)

    The Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA) on June 5, 2003 as part of its strategy for the protection of wildlife species at risk. Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species that receive protection under SARA, hereinafter referred to as the 'SARA list'. Canadians are invited to comment on whether all or some of the species included in this document should be added to the SARA list. Please submit your comments by March 16, 2007 for species undergoing normal consultations and by March 14, 2008 for species undergoing extended consultations.
  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act: Terrestrial Species January 2019 (2019-01-15)

    The Government of Canada is committed to preventing the disappearance of wildlife species at risk from our lands. As part of its strategy for realizing that commitment, on June 5, 2003, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species provided for under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species on Schedule 1 benefit from the protection afforded by the prohibitions and from recovery planning requirements under SARA. Special Concern species benefit from its management planning requirements. Schedule 1 has grown from the original 233 to 580 wildlife species at risk. Please submit your comments by May 13, 2019, for terrestrial species undergoing normal consultations and by October 14, 2019, for terrestrial species undergoing extended consultations. For a description of the consultation paths these species will undergo, please visit the Species at Risk (SAR) Public Registry website at: The Minister of the Environment's Response to Species at Risk Assessments.
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