With its distinctive black hood and whistled song, the Harris's Sparrow is a conspicuous summer resident of the transition zone between the subarctic boreal forest and Low Arctic tundra of northern Canada. This species was first collected in Missouri in 1834 by Thomas Nuttall and later named by Audubon for Edward Harris (1799–1863), a companion of Audubon's on his 1843 trip up the Missouri River ( Baumgartner 1968a , Choate 1985 ). This sparrow's generally remote breeding habitat and secretive nesting behavior, however, have made it one of the last passerines in North America to have its nest and eggs described; until recently, little was known about even the most basic aspects of its breeding biology. In contrast, where this species winters in the south-central United States, certain aspects of its behavior and ecology have been studied in detail during the nonbreeding season. In addition, the striking plumage variability of wintering Harris's Sparrows has encouraged studies of avian status signaling.
The Harris's Sparrow is a relatively large, sexually monomorphic emberizine finch. Interestingly, the current taxonomic scheme accepted by the American Ornithologists' Union ( American Ornithologists' Union 1998a ) gives the species unique status as the only passerine that breeds endemically in Canada. The species apparently shows little morphological variation over its range, and no subspecies are recognized.
This bird eats a wide range of animal and plant foods throughout the year. Its remote breeding range and preference for ecotonal situations during the nonbreeding season suggest that the species is unlikely to be affected adversely by human activities in the near future, although Christmas Bird Count data suggest that winter populations in the central Great Plains have decreased significantly since the early 1970s.