Friday, April 3, 2015

Sparrows: Many shades of brown

Sparrows can be a confusing lot. I'll admit that, without a good look, sometimes I must simply call them LBBs (Little Brown Birds). Brilliant colors help identify the orioles and warblers, but often color is of little use as a sparrow moves furtively through the dark underbrush. Some species are more difficult to classify when in immature and winter plumage.

A field guide to sparrows could be effectively rendered in black and white.  One must rely upon size, shape, habitat, habits, song and, most important, plumage patterns of their heads and undersides. 

A female Red-winged Blackbird might pass as a sparrow, but take a close look at its substantial pointed bill, an indication that it is omnivorous, adapted to eating insects as well as seeds and grain:

Red-winged Blackbird female 2-20130719

A female Rose-breasted Grosbeak may be sparrow-like, but is much larger and has (duh) a huge bill:

Rose-breasted Grosbeak 20120906

Winter Indigo Buntings can look somewhat like sparrows, but lack prominent streaking:

Indigo Bunting female 20121021

A female Purple Finch might cause confusion, but its voice, conical bill, heavier body and habit of feeding as flocks in the treetops help distinguishing it from sparrows, most of which are more commonly found on or near the ground:

Purple Finch 2-20121025

The tiny Pine Siskin has a thin bill and rather plain face pattern, usually shows some yellow in its wings, and may be seen extracting seeds from spent flower heads, often in the company of goldfinches;

Pine Siskin 20081113

Song Sparrows vary considerably but have a basic distinguishing facial pattern:

Song Sparrow 20100314

The large size and rufous (but sometimes slate gray) color helps identify a Fox Sparrow, so often found scratching noisily among the dry leaves:

Fox Sparrow 2-20101017

The Vesper Sparrow's belly is sparsely streaked and it has white outer tail feathers and a rusty patch on its shoulder:

Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus ) 20110614

The Savannah Sparrow is a bird of open fields and shrubby borders. Its coarse streaks may resemble those of a Song Sparrow but it is smaller and has a proportionately shorter tail. Its face pattern and the usual presence of yellow over the eye also helps in recognizing it.:

Savannah Sparrow 3-20120506

The Swamp Sparrow likes wet places and has rich chestnut brown on its wings and tail, a reddish cap (in summer) and a white throat:

Swamp Sparrow 09-20140929

Lincoln's Sparrow may lurk in the underbrush. Note that the buffy brown cast to its "whisker," upper breast and sides of its belly, underlying narrow stripes. It often raises its small crest:

Lincolns Sparrow 5-20101029

White-crowned Sparrow is large and distinctive:

White-crowned Sparrow 02-20141010

Immature White-crowned Sparrows may retain a brownish crown for a couple of years:

White-crowned Sparrow 06-20141010

The White-throated Sparrow usually has yellow in front of its eyes in addition to its distinctive throat:

White-throated Sparrow 3-20141009

The reddish cap and a black line that goes all the way through the eye identifies a Chipping Sparrow in its summer plumage:

Chipping Sparrow 20120509

The demure Field Sparrow has a long tail, pink bill and bland face. Its song often gives away its location:

Field Sparrow 20110707

The American Tree Sparrow is a northern species that visits Illinois in the winter. It has a reddish brown cap and line behind its eye as well as a central dark breast spot: 

American Tree Sparrows 4-20130110

The otherwise plain face of the Clay-colored Sparrow has a contrasting brown cheek patch with a dark border, and light gray extends up the back of its neck:

Clay-colored Sparrow2 2-20130513

Grasshopper Sparrow is a small and short-tailed bird of the prairie with a big bill, white eye-rings, and looks flat-headed. :

Grasshopper Sparrow 20110201

The rare and secretive Henslow's Sparrow is also small and has a greenish cast to its head:

Henslows Sparrow 6-20090618

The reclusive Nelson's Sparrow sports lively shades of orange on its face and breast:

Nelson's Sparrow 08-20140929

A resident of the southwest, the Black-throated Sparrow exhibits a unique face pattern. I took this photo in the eastern foothills of Albuquerque, New Mexico:

Black-throated Sparrow 3-20111114

The Lark Sparrow has a quail-like face pattern. Before I acquired a DSLR I took this photo with a 2 megapixel pocket camera through a spotting scope from inside our New Mexico living room:

Lark Sparrow

I photographed this Rufous-crowned Sparrow in the Grand Canyon. Its features include its large size, ground-dwelling habits and prominent white eye ring:

Rufous-crowned Sparrow 4-20111114

The Black-chinned Sparrow is another bird I found in the Grand Canyon. Its plain gray head makes it look somewhat like a junco:

Black-chinned Sparrow 2-20130620

Juncos are considered part of the sparrow clan. Adults lack the streaking so typical of other sparrows.

The Dark-eyed (Slate-colored) Junco is a common winter bird in the northern central and eastern states. It is commonly called "snowbird.":

Dark-eyed Junco 2-20101025

Juncos exhibit several other color patterns, including these Dark-eyed (Pink-sided and Gray-headed) Juncos, which I photographed in New Mexico:

Pink-sided and Gray-headed Juncos 20111114

The introduced old-world House Sparrow deserves mention here:

House Sparrow 20110512


  1. What beautiful birds .. Fantastic series of photos .. Happy Easter

  2. You have the makings of a sparrow bird book. Wonderful identifications.

  3. Terrific tutorial on sparrow identification, Ken! Splendid photographs!