Sparrows are a diverse group of birds, and identifying them can be a challenge for many birders. With dozens of species found in North America alone, each sparrow has its own unique characteristics that set it apart. In this article, we will explore different types of sparrows, focusing on those with black bird white stripes on wings, and provide tips on how to identify them.
1. Song Sparrow
The song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is a relatively common sparrow with a widespread distribution. Although its plumage may initially appear bland and streaked, there are key features to look for when identifying this bird. The long, rounded tail and a central splotch or spot of color on the bird’s chest are distinct field marks. The song sparrow is also known for its warbling song, which it sings profusely from perches.
2. Chipping Sparrow
The chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina) is a summer resident in much of the United States and Canada, with some populations wintering in the southern states and Mexico. This sparrow stands out with its bold rufous crown, black eye stripe, and white or gray eyebrow. Its clear gray breast and abdomen further aid in identification. While there are no noticeable differences between males and females, females may appear larger and duller in coloration.
3. White-Crowned Sparrow
The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is easily distinguishable by its bold “bandit” head pattern of thick black and white stripes. Other field marks include a pale bill, grayish body, and ground foraging behavior with a double-footed scratching hop. While this sparrow is common in the western United States and Canada, it is less frequently seen in the east.
4. Lark Sparrow
The lark sparrow (Chondestes grammacus) features a distinctive facial pattern in rufous, white, and black, paired with a relatively plain body. Look for its white outer tail feathers, although they may be challenging to see. This species is commonly found in the central and western United States during the summer.
5. Golden-Crowned Sparrow
The golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricopilla) earns its name from the bold, bright yellow crown that contrasts with a darker head and gray cheek. While the rest of its plumage is fairly plain, noting the pale lower mandible of the bill can aid in identification. These sparrows are common winter birds along the Pacific coast and are summer residents along the Pacific coast of Canada and throughout Alaska. In winter, their range may extend further east into mountainous regions.
6. White-Throated Sparrow
The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is common in the eastern United States during the winter and throughout Canada during the summer. This sparrow displays a bold white throat that contrasts with its gray breast. The head stripes can be either white or buff, and both color morphs share a distinctive yellow patch in front of the eye.
7. Savannah Sparrow
The Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) is a streaked bird that prefers open areas and often gathers in large flocks during migration. Look for a yellow splotch above and in front of the eye, which is a key field mark. The color, thickness, and spread of the streaking on the rest of the body can vary regionally but generally maintain the same pattern.
8. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
An introduced species, the Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) closely resembles the male house sparrow but with a brown cap instead of a gray one. Another distinguishing feature is the black patch on its cheek. This sparrow is primarily found in small populations in the Midwest, mainly in Iowa and Illinois.
9. Fox Sparrow
The fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca) comes in both red and gray plumage morphs. Look for thick triangular or arrowhead-shaped spotting and streaking on the breast and flanks, a thin eye ring, and a smudge on the cheek. Both plumage variations share a two-toned bill with a darker upper mandible. The red form is most common in eastern populations, while the gray form is found in the west.
10. Clay-Colored Sparrow
The clay-colored sparrow (Spizella pallida) is a common summer visitor to southern Canada and the northern plains states, migrating to southern Texas and Mexico during winter. Although its markings are not as bold as other species, key features include head stripes, a white eyebrow, and a pale mustache. The gray neck contrasts with the buff-colored chest and back.
11. American Tree Sparrow
The American tree sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) prefers colder climates and spends summers in northern Canada and Alaska, while wintering in the northern parts of the United States. Look for a rusty cap that can be raised or lowered like a small crest. A dark blurry spot in the center of a clear grayish-white breast, rusty eye line, two-toned bill, and white wing bars are additional field marks for identifying this sparrow.
12. Le Conte’s Sparrow
The Le Conte’s Sparrow (Ammospiza leconteii) is a shy sparrow typically found in central Canada during the summer and along the central Gulf Coast of the United States in the winter. Look for broad head streaks washed with rich gold or orange-buff hues and a somewhat wide central white head stripe. The gray cheek and neck with fine stripes are also helpful field marks.
13. Slate Dark-Eyed Junco
The dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is a common winter bird throughout the United States, with summers spent in the boreal regions of Canada and Alaska. The slate-colored junco, characterized by its rich gray coloration and contrasting white abdomen, is the most common variation in the east. Look for its pink bill as an additional key field mark.
14. Oregon Dark-Eyed Junco
Another variation of the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis) is the Oregon junco, distinguished by its prominent dark hood, brown back, and rufous wash on the flanks. Like other junco variations, Oregon juncos have pink bills. This is the most prevalent junco in the west, with populations migrating as far south as northern Mexico and the Baja Peninsula.
15. Male House Sparrow
The house sparrow (Passer domesticus) is the most widespread and familiar sparrow species in North America, as well as in Europe, South America, and Asia. Introduced to Brooklyn, New York, in 1851, these birds have adapted and spread rapidly across various habitats. Male house sparrows have distinct brown plumage, gray caps, black bills, and black bibs on gray chests, making them easily identifiable. However, they are considered invasive and are subject to control measures.
16. Female House Sparrow
The female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has less distinct markings than the male. They can be easily mistaken for other bird species or labeled as “little brown jobs” rather than correctly identified. Look for the striking plumage with buff, black, and brown markings, as well as the clear buff eyebrow. Due to their invasive nature in North America, many birders take steps to discourage house sparrows.