There are dozens of species of sparrows in North America alone, and for many birders, they can be challenging to identify. All sparrows are small birds with active personalities, and their elusive behavior can make it difficult to watch them long enough for a positive identification. Each sparrow does, however, have distinctive field marks that can make it easier to tell them apart.
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The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a widespread, relatively common sparrow. Initially difficult to identify because of its relatively bland, streaked plumage, birders can quickly learn to look for its long, rounded tail and the central splotch or spot of color on the bird’s chest, though some birds do not have it as clearly defined as others. The bird’s warbling song is also a great clue to its identity, and it will often sing profusely from perches.Continue to 2 of 16 below.
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The chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) is a common summer bird throughout much of the United States and Canada, with winter populations extending into the southern states and Mexico. Easily recognized by its bold rufous crown, black eye stripe, white or gray eyebrow, and clear gray breast and abdomen, this bird is an easy one to spot when it visits yards and gardens. Although there are no noticeable differences between males and females, females can appear larger in size and duller in coloration.Continue to 3 of 16 below.
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The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is easy to distinguish with its bold “bandit” head pattern of thick black and white stripes. The pale bill and grayish body are other good field marks for this species, as is its ground foraging behavior and double-footed scratching hop. This is a familiar bird in the western United States and throughout Canada, but it is less common in the east.Continue to 4 of 16 below.
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The boldly marked lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) is instantly recognizable by its strong facial pattern in rufous, white, and black, paired with a relatively plain body. The bird’s white outer tail feathers are another good field mark but those can be more difficult to see. These birds are commonly found in the central and western United States during the summer.Continue to 5 of 16 below.
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The golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricopilla) is aptly named for its bold, bright yellow crown that contrasts starkly with a darker head and gray cheek. The rest of the bird’s plumage is fairly plain, but noting the pale lower mandible of the bill can help with proper identification if the crown cannot be clearly seen. These are common winter birds along the Pacific coast and are summer residents along the Pacific coast of Canada and throughout Alaska. In winter, the range may extend much further east in mountainous regions.Continue to 6 of 16 below.
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The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is common in the eastern United States during the winter and throughout Canada during the summer, with small areas of year-round populations where the ranges overlap. The bold white throat contrasts with the bird’s gray breast, but the stripes on the head can be either white or buff. Both color morphs, however, share the distinctive yellow patch in front of the eye.Continue to 7 of 16 below.
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The Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) is a streaked bird that prefers open areas and often gathers in large flocks for migration. Patterning is heavier on the face, and a yellow splotch above and in front of the eye is a key field mark. The strength of the streaking on the rest of the body can vary regionally in color, thickness, and spread, but will retain the same general pattern.Continue to 8 of 16 below.
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Eurasian Tree Sparrow
An introduced, non-native species, the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) looks strikingly similar to the male house sparrow but has a brown cap instead of a gray one, and the black on its chin and chest is much less extensive. Another key marking is the black patch on the cheek. This bird is most easily identified by range, as it is only found in small populations in the Midwest mainly in Iowa and Illinois.Continue to 9 of 16 below.
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The fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) has both a red (pictured) and gray plumage morph. The markings are similar, with thick triangular or arrowhead-shaped spotting and streaking on the breast and flanks, a thin eye ring, and a smudge on the cheek. The two-toned bill with a darker upper mandible is common to both plumage variations. The red form is most common in eastern populations, while the gray form is a western variety.Continue to 10 of 16 below.
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The clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) is common in southern Canada and the northern plains states during the summer, and in winter it migrates to southern Texas and Mexico. Because its markings are not as bold as other species it can be challenging to identify, but the head stripes are the clearest features, including the white eyebrow and pale mustache. The gray neck can also contrast with the buff-colored chest and back.Continue to 11 of 16 below.
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American Tree Sparrow
The American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) prefers colder climates and spends summers in northern Canada and Alaska, while it winters in the northern parts of the United States. It prefers brushy habitats and often mingles in mixed flocks with other sparrows or juncos. The rusty cap, which the bird can raise or lower as a small crest, is a good field mark, as is the dark blurry spot in the center of a clear grayish-white breast. The rusty eye line, two-toned bill, and white wing bars are other good markings to look for when identifying this sparrow.Continue to 12 of 16 below.
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Le Conte's Sparrow
The Le Conte’s Sparrow (Ammospiza leconteii) is a shy sparrow typically found in central Canada in the summer and along the central Gulf Coast of the United States in the winter after following a narrow migration path through the Great Plains. The clearest field marks for this marsh-loving sparrow are its broad head streaks washed with rich gold or orange-buff hues and the somewhat wide central white head stripe. The gray cheek and gray neck with fine stripes are other good field marks but are not always as visible.Continue to 13 of 16 below.
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Slate Dark-Eyed Junco
The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a common winter bird throughout the United States, and it spends summers in the boreal regions of Canada and Alaska. Commonly called “snowbirds” because these gray sparrows prefer colder climates and only appear in the winter, dark-eyed juncos have many plumage morphs. The slate-colored junco is the most common in the east, with its rich gray coloration and contrasting white abdomen. The pink bill is another key field mark.Continue to 14 of 16 below.
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Oregon Dark-Eyed Junco
Another variation of the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis), the Oregon junco is distinctive with its prominent dark hood, brown back, and rufous wash on the flanks. Like most other junco variations, Oregon juncos have pink bills. This is the most common junco in the west, with populations migrating as far south as northern Mexico and the Baja peninsula.Continue to 15 of 16 below.
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Male House Sparrow
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is the most widespread and familiar of any North American sparrow species, and it is widely found through Europe, South America, and Asia. Originally a European bird, house sparrows were introduced in Brooklyn, New York, in 1851 and have rapidly adapted and spread through many different types of habitats. The male birds have a distinct brown plumage, gray cap, black bill, and black bib on a gray chest, all clear field markings for easy identification. Today, these birds are considered invasive.Continue to 16 of 16 below.
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Female House Sparrow
The female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is less distinctly marked than the male. These girls are more easily confused with other bird species, or more apt to be labeled as “little brown jobs” instead of properly identified. The buff, black, and brown markings are a striking plumage, and the buff eyebrow is very clear. Because they are invasive in North America, many birders take steps to discourage house sparrows.
When invasive species clash: Competition between the House Sparrow and House Finch. Cornell Lab of Ornithology.