House sparrows (Passer domesticus) are one of the most common birds in the world, found in urban, suburban, and rural areas alike. They are also one of the easiest to see because they are very comfortable around and have adapted quite well to human habitation.
Learning to easily identify house sparrows can help birders better appreciate the beauty and subtle markings of these common birds. Additionally, once you're able to quickly recognize these sparrows, it will be much easier to accurately determine when a more unique or unusual bird visits your backyard.
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Identifying the Male House Sparrow
Male house sparrows are distinctly marked. However, there can be a great deal of variation among different subspecies and geographic populations, which makes learning key field marks for these birds essential for proper identification.
To identify male house sparrows, look for:
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- Crown: The crown from the bill to the nape is gray, but the extent of the gray can vary. Some birds have a very wide, deep crown, while others have a smaller, less distinct gray patch.
- Bill: The bill is a blunt triangle, ideal for cracking the seeds these granivorous birds eat. On males, the bill color may vary from a solid black (more common in spring) to a smudgy gray-black with a dirty yellow tinge on the lower mandible (more common in fall).
- Chin, Throat, and Breast: Male house sparrows have a black patch covering the chin, throat, and breast, but the extent of black varies widely. On younger birds or in fresh fall plumage, the black may be much less and may show mottling. On dominant older birds or in fresh spring plumage, the patch is larger and darker.
- Back: The back is vertically streaked with black and a warm red-brown. Some buff or gray may also show on the back.
- Wing Bar: One fairly broad, white wing bar is visible. The extent of that visibility can vary depending on the bird's posture and feather positions.
- Underparts: The underparts are a plain, dull gray and may show some faint blurriness but lack distinct markings.
- Wings: The primary feathers and secondary feathers are brown with black centers. They can have a spotted appearance, depending on the bird's posture and molt timing.
- Undertail Coverts: Like the rest of the underparts, the undertail coverts are plain, medium gray.
- Tail: The tail is medium-length and is typically held closed, with a relatively straight edge, though a small notch may be visible. The tail feathers are dark with buff edging.
- Flock: House sparrows are gregarious birds that are frequently found in flocks ranging from just a few birds to dozens. They may also join mixed flocks with house finches or other sparrow species. This is particularly true at feeders where they are often considered bully birds because of their aggression while feeding.
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The Male House Sparrow Rear View
Seen from behind, male house sparrows show distinct colors and markings that can be useful for identification. When watching a flock, look for the following clues that they are house sparrows:
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- Crown: The extent of gray on the crown varies, but generally extends to the nape. It is easily visible when the birds are viewed from behind.
- Bill: The triangular bill is the ideal shape for cracking seeds, and varies from a dirty yellow-gray color to solid black.
- Auriculars: The male house sparrow's auriculars are pale gray. These "cheek patches" are bordered at the front by the black throat and bib and at the rear by the red-brown and the gray nape.
- Back: The buff, brown, and black streaking on the back is clearly visible on male house sparrows and extends to the bird's shoulders.
- Wing Bar: The white wing bar is readily visible on all male house sparrows, though the width and extent of the bar will vary depending on posture and wing position.
- Rump: When the wings are slightly drooped or the bird is in flight, the plain gray rump is easily visible. A faint brown wash may show on the rump closer to the tail.
- Feet: If visible, the legs and feet of male house sparrows are a pale fleshy color.
- Tail: The medium-long tail is dark with buff edging, and shows a small notch at the tip. The tail is typically held closed and remains still when the bird is perched.
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Identifying the Female House Sparrow
Female birds are often more heavily camouflaged than their male counterparts, and female house sparrows are no exception. Though her colors may be less bold than a male's, the female house sparrow has distinct markings that can help birders readily identify her.
To confirm that a bird is a female house sparrow, look for:
- Bill: The shape of the bill is the same as a male's: a sturdy triangle for cracking seeds. However, female house sparrows have lighter bills that are a smudgy gray-black on the upper mandible and paler yellow below.
- Eyebrow: The female's brown head is marked with wide buff eyebrows that extend well back toward the nape and is bordered below by a darker eye line. The extent and crispness of the eyebrow can vary, but it is always present.
- Throat: Unlike males with their dark throats and black bib, the female house sparrow has a pale buff or gray-buff throat. Very faint, thin malar stripes may border the throat but are difficult to see.
- Back: The back is marked with buff, brown, tan, and black streaks in a vertical pattern. The width of the stripes may seem to vary based on the bird's posture and feather position.
- Underparts: The underparts are plain gray without any stripes, streaks, or distinct color patches.
- Tail: The tail is medium length and shows a small notch in the center. The feathers are dark with buff edging, though the edging may disappear as the feathers become worn.
- Feet: The feet and legs are a pale flesh tone or yellowish color.