The temperature is warming up and the days are longer. Spring migration is ramping up and I am starting to see more birds in the edge of the woodlot behind my apartment and I hear them singing early in the morning. Some of the most common birds that I see and hear are sparrows, those little brown birds with white streaking. While many look the same at first glance, there are so many different individual sparrow species that might visit your area – in fact there are over 40 different kinds!
Let’s examine how to tell some common sparrows apart in time for World Sparrow Day!
The easiest way to tell them apart is by looking for field markings. These are marks in the coloration of their feathers such as stripes, streaking, spotting, and more. Another way to distinguish between the sparrows is by listening to their calls and observing where we find them (the habitats they prefer). Some of the common ones where I live (southeastern Pennsylvania) include the Song, White-throated, and House Sparrows.
These sparrows, just like many others, are primarily brown, however where the brown markings are can help us figure out what little sparrow we’re looking at. Song Sparrows have white throats and chests with brown streaks down the top portion of the front and along the sides. They have a reddish-brown head, and a gray-ish brown stripe above their eye. Another key marking is that they have brown triangles on the sides of their throats.
As their name implies, they have beautiful and melodic songs. During the spring, the males often sing to attract mates, denote territory, and communicate with other birds.
Listen to their call and song HERE.
This sparrow has a very easy-to-see field marking that really sets them apart from other sparrows – their yellow eyebrow! While some of these species have a more dingy yellow color than others of its kind, even the dingy yellows are clearly yellow and not a brown or tan. They have white chins (throats) and pale, creamy chests without the dark streaking that the Song Sparrows have, and a white or tan stripe down the center of their heads.
This particular White-throated sparrow is more tan than bright white, however you can still see the snow-white patch under the beak that gives this bird their name.
Listen to their call HERE
The breeding plumage and sexual dimorphism between the male and female House Sparrows can make identifying these birds quickly a challenge, however the males are easily identified as House Sparrows due to their striking coloration.
The males have gray caps with cinnamon-colored sides on their heads. There are blocks of black around their eyes, extending towards their beak and throat. Their beaks are dark browinish-black, however the females can look very different. Their chests are a grey color as well. During the breeding season the black that extends towards their throat will look more and more like a bib.
The females are more of a tan color with less contrast to their feathers. Instead of a cinnamon stripe on the sides of their heads, you can see a very slight tan stripe, although both the male and females have brown and black wing feathers. The female’s beaks are more of a golden yellow color rather than the black of the males.
Listen to their call HERE.
While these sparrows might be commonplace, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important or worth celebrating. These are important insectivores and seed-eaters who help to disperse seeds and keep insect populations in balance. I love seeing the Song Sparrows in my garden, flitting around, searching for grubs and other insects that when in an unchecked excess could damage the beautiful plants that I carefully grow.
Celebrate these adorable little birds with my “Birds of Pennsylvania” sticker set, which includes a sparrow and other species common to the Eastern United States.