Sparrows are very common, widespread birds. In fact, there are more than 50 sparrow species that can be found in North America alone. But what makes a sparrow a sparrow, and how are these little brown birds unique?
You can find sparrows worldwide. While there is some overlap in characteristics with larks, buntings, and other birds, sparrows belong primarily to two bird families.
We refer to the Passeridae bird family as the Old World sparrows. It includes more than 40 species spread throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is the most well-known bird of this family. It’s infamously been introduced to many areas and can become invasive and aggressive toward native birds. Other Passeridae sparrows include the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus), Italian sparrow (Passer italiae), rock sparrow (Petronia petronia), and chestnut sparrow (Passer eminibey).
See also: Birdsong Identification Tips
The New World sparrows of North America, South America, and the Caribbean make up the Passerellidae family. There are more than 140 species in this diverse family, including the familiar song sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Other New World sparrows include the chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), and olive sparrow (Arremonops rufivirgatus). Many species of juncos and towhees also belong to the Passerellidae bird family.
Common Sparrow Traits
With so much diversity in the two sparrow families, it is helpful to recognize the common characteristics many sparrows share.
- Size: Most sparrows are 5-7 inches long, though some species are a bit smaller and some are a bit larger. Their proportions have a classic “songbird” appearance, with a deep chest and medium-length or long tail.
- Bill: Sparrows eat seeds and grain, and their bills are short, thick, conical shapes that can easily crack tough seed shells. During the breeding season when young birds need protein, sparrows will eat more insects.
- Coloration: These birds are well-camouflaged with mottled plumage of brown, black, gray, and beige tones. Some sparrows show bolder colors such as white, rust, or yellow patches—especially on the head.
- Feeding: When foraging, sparrows stay low in brush or even pick around on the ground looking for their next morsel. They often scratch through leaf litter and will hop through shrubbery as they look for food.
- Flocks: Sparrows are social, and while they are more solitary during the breeding season, they will join mixed flocks with chickadees, tits, and wrens in the fall and winter. It’s not unusual for several sparrow species to be in the same flock.
See also: Top 3 Worst Bird Feeding Mistakes
10 Special North American Sparrows
Many sparrows we see regularly in North America have distinctive features that help with their identification. Learning those key field marks will allow you to better appreciate the diversity of these lovely birds.
1. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
One of the most widespread sparrows throughout the United States and Canada, the song sparrow has a lovely, lilting voice. When you see this bird, note the rich brown or red-brown coloration and the bold “muttonchop” moustache. The pale underparts are heavily streaked, and the streaks coalesce into a central splotch. You can find these birds in riparian areas and brushy habitats, or even in urban and suburban parks.
2. Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
The fox sparrow is another widespread North American sparrow and can look similar to the song sparrow. This bird, however, has sharper, arrow-like spotted streaks on its underparts, and a gray wash on the cheek. There are several subspecies of fox sparrow in the United States and Canada. Variations in coloration range from reddish to gray.
3. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
You can find the chipping sparrow throughout Mexico, the United States, and Canada, depending on the season. A more delicate sparrow, these birds have plain underparts, mottled upper parts, and a distinctive head pattern with a fine black eyeline, white eyebrow, and chestnut crown. They often stay higher in trees than you might expect for most sparrows, but they will come to feeders.
4. Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)
Found primarily in the central and western United States and into Mexico, the lark sparrow has one of the most colorful head patterns of any North American sparrow. Patches of buff, white, black, and chestnut make a bold patchwork pattern, framing the white throat. This bird’s tail also has large white corners, which is another key field mark.
See also: Where Do Birds Sleep at Night?
5. Black-Throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata)
The black-throated sparrow is well worth seeing for its stark head pattern. Aptly named for its black throat, that throat is set off by bright white borders that match the white eyebrow, giving this bird a bandit-like look. Its range is limited to desert regions of the west and southwest United States and into Mexico.
6. Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
Found throughout the eastern and southern United States as well as along the Pacific Coast, this sparrow is named not because it eats grasshoppers, but because it prefers dry, grassy habitats just like its namesake insects. Furthermore, its buzzy voice is reminiscent of a grasshopper’s buzz.
See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Birding
7. White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
The bold white throat of the white-throated sparrow is an easy-to-see field mark, along with the patch of yellow above and in front of their eyes. Found in eastern North America and into the central Great Plains as well as along the Pacific Coast in winter, these sparrows are welcome guests at feeders when snow flies.
8. White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
Widespread throughout all of North America, the white-crowned sparrow is easily recognized by its zebra-like black-and-white head stripes. You can find these birds in winter flocks that will easily visit feeders, though they are more common in the west than in the east.
9. Golden-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
You can find this west coast sparrow from southern California to Alaska. Everywhere it’s seen, its bold yellow crown stands out. The bright yellow patch starkly contrasts with the rest of the black crown, though the rest of the bird’s plumage is the typical brown-gray-black-buff mottling of most sparrows.
10. Dark-Eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)
The dark-eyed junco is a sparrow that we don’t call a sparrow. You can find it throughout North America in six different subspecies, each with different colorations. The key field mark for all of these birds, however, is the pale pinkish bill, which stands out well against their gray or black plumage. These birds also show white outer tail feathers, which flash as they flit back and forth.
How many of these or other sparrows have you seen? The more of these species you notice, the more you will recognize not only what makes sparrows related, but also the subtle variations and distinctive traits that make each one unique and delightful.