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Intermediate & Advanced ID: Sparrows

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Swamp Sparrow
Sparrow identification can be challenging. Learn the most common sparrows (Song, Chipping, and White-throated) first, then use these clues to help you learn the others.


Size: This can be hard to determine but can also be a very useful clue. The largest sparrows in North America are 7 - 7 1/2 inches, while the smallest are 5 - 5 1/2 inches. That's a very significant difference between small birds.

Head: Does it appear flat or rounded? Is the head pattern bold, with black, bright white, and/or yellow? Is there an eye ring? Is there a noticeable jaw stripe that extends down and back from the base of the bill?

Underparts: Are the breast and belly streaked, or unstreaked? If streaked, is the streaking bold or blurry, fine or coarse? Are the underparts white, gray, or buffy?

Tail: Is the tail long or short relative to the body? Is it pointed, rounded, or notched? Does it have white corners or edges?

Habitat: Where are you seeing the bird? In a grassy field, in a marsh, on your lawn, or in a city? Is the bird skulking--hiding low among grasses or branches--or out in the open?

Voice: Sparrows are beautiful singers. Many species have songs that are more distinctive than their plumage, and some even sing during migration. Learn songs by listening, either to sparrows in the wild or to audio recordings.


Practice, practice, practice! There's no substitute for field experience. Get to know the common sparrows first; identify and study whichever species are most familiar to you. Learn them well so that you will be better equipped to recognize an unfamiliar sparrow when you see one.

Confirm that you are looking at a sparrow: There are several kinds of small, brown, streaked birds that occupy the same habitats as sparrows. Check your field guide to make sure that the bird in question is not a longspur, bunting, or finch.

Lump look-alikes: Sparrows can be divided into several groups. Each group is distinctive in shape and sometimes patterns. Knowing these groups can help narrow down your choices when trying to identify a given bird.

triangle picture Large, long-tailed, with plain underparts and boldly-patterned heads (genus Zonotrichia) 4 species. Examples: White-throated and White-crowned Sparrows.
triangle picture Small, skulking, with short, pointed tail and olive or buffy color on face (genus Ammodramus) 7 species. Examples: Grasshopper, LeConte's, Sharp-tailed.
triangle picture Smallish with long, rounded tails, reddish on wings, strong jaw stripes and faintly to heavily streaked underparts (genus Melospiza) 3 species. Examples: Song, Swamp.
triangle picture Small, long-tailed, with plain underparts and brown to reddish, streaked upperparts (genus Spizella ) 6 species. Examples: Chipping, Field, Tree.
triangle picture Like above, but with flat heads (genus Aimophila) 4 species. Examples: Cassin's, Rufous-crowned.

Seek the Unique: A few sparrows have something about them that is unique among sparrows. Here are some examples.

triangle picture Vesper Sparrow: white tail edges.
triangle picture Lark Sparrow: very striking head pattern.
triangle picture Golden-crowned Sparrow: adults have a yellow forehead.
triangle picture Black-throated Sparrow: large black "beard".
triangle picture Tree Sparrow: yellow-and-black bill.
triangle picture White-throated, White-crowned Sparrows: can have black-and-white striped heads.

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