Sparrows are not the flashiest birds out there, but they are a fairly large category. There are many types of sparrows and most have similar sizes, colors, and feather patterns that make them hard to tell apart and leave bird watchers reaching for their guidebooks. In fact they are often called “LBB” or little brown birds. In this article we will take a look at 17 of the most common species of sparrows in North America.
What is a sparrow?
Sparrows are members of the passerine family of birds, commonly referred to as “songbirds” or “perching birds”. Sparrows are relatively small in size. Some do eat insects but they are mainly seed-eaters, and their cone-shaped bills make them experts at husking seeds. They tend to be brown or gray in color with streaking along their backs and wings. Often the best way to tell them apart is by the color patterns on their head and face.
Sparrows can be found in many different habitats such as swamps, grasslands, forests, pastures and everything in-between. There are over 40 species of sparrows that live in North America. Some are quite abundant while others can only be found in very specific regions. Let’s look at the more common sparrows that you would most likely run into to on a hike, at the park, on the beach or in your own backyard.
Types of Sparrows
1. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song sparrows are gray and brown with bold warm brown streaks. They are very common across the United States and Canada. So common, that they have developed a lot of regional differences in their coloration, size and song. During spring and summer the males will perch on exposed branches and sing to attract mates and defend territory. And they sing a lot! Males and females search for places to nest together, and prefer to build hidden in tall grasses and weeds. Song sparrows will visit bird feeders and aren’t too afraid of nesting near humans.
2. Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
Field sparrows have a buffy gray body with brown and white striping on the wing, a pink beak, a brown cap and brown spot behind the eye. These little sparrows are found in the eastern half of the U.S. in grasslands, prairies and fields, the more overgrown the better. Unfortunately their numbers have declined in many areas as these open fields have become suburbs, where they will not nest.
3. Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
Chipping sparrows have a plain gray chest and belly with brown and black streaked wings, a black eye-line and a bright rusty cap. They can be found all across North America in areas of woodlands and grassy forests as well as parks and suburban backyards. Chipping sparrows are common at bird feeders, and especially enjoy eating seeds on the ground. While during summer males will fight each other for territory, during fall and winter they band together in flocks.
4. House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)
House sparrows have an amazing ability to adapt to urban environments and can be found year-round throughout all of the United States, Mexico and parts of Canada. In fact they prefer nesting in man-made structures building eaves, shopping mall signs and street lights. These sparrows are not native to North America and were introduced from Europe in 1851 . Unfortunately they can be a real problem for native birds. They aggressively take over nest boxes from other birds such as bluebirds and swallows, killing both young and adults in the process. It is thought that males with more black on their face and chest are older and more dominant over younger males.
5. Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
Fox sparrows are named after the rich red and orange coat of a fox. However only some fox sparrows have this coloring. Four distinct color groups exist that can look quite different from each other, Red, Sooty, Slate-colored and Thick-billed. These color variations occur in different regions in North America. They are a common sparrow but reclusive, preferring to stay in dense thickets and brush. They may come to backyard feeders to pick at the seed that has fallen to the ground, but are more likely to visit fruiting shrubs.
6. Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)
Swamp sparrows can be found in the eastern two-thirds of North America. They spend the summer breeding in Canada and far northern U.S. states and then winter in the U.S. and Mexico. These sparrows have a gray face, buffy sides, brown streaked wings, a rusty cap and black eye stripe. Swamp sparrows only nest in wetland habitats, and like to stay hidden among tall reeds, brush and vegetation. They actually have slightly longer legs than other sparrows, and this helps them wade through marsh water when foraging.
7. White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
White-throated sparrows are common across much of the U.S. during the winter, and then migrate to Canada in the summer to breed. Their white throat patch makes them easier to identify among sparrows, along with their bold facial pattern of black and white stripe with yellow spots between the eyes. The females often nest on or just above the ground in hidden areas of dense brush and vegetation. These sparrows will visit your backyard feeder, and like to pick up seed off the ground. To encourage these sparrows, keep some brush piles nearby they can hide in.
8. Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)
Vesper sparrows have a streaked back and wings, light brown streaking on the chest with a plain belly, a white ring around the eye and white outer tail feathers. This sparrow of fields and grasslands can be found in the northern half of North America during the summer breeding season, and southern North America in the fall and winter. Vesper, meaning “evening song”, describes this sparrows habit of singing after sunset when most other birds have gone quiet. They like to be out in the open when they sing and will choose elevated perches such as wires, the top of fence posts, and the tops of shrubs.
9. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
White-crowned sparrows spend the summer far north in Canada and Alaska, then migrate back down across the United States during the winter. In certain areas of the mid-west they stay year round. One of the easier sparrows to identify, white-crowned sparrows have a bold black and white striped head while the rest of their face, chest and belly remain a plain buffy brown-gray. They like to forage in fields, and along the edges of roads and trails. These sparrows will come to bird feeders, but are most likely to stay on the ground and pick up spilt seed.
10. Lark Sparrow (Chondestes gerammacus)
A larger sized sparrow, the Lark sparrow’s identifying feature is their multicolored head. It has a unique pattern of white, black, tan and warm brown. They have a pale chest with one central black spot, and the tip of the tail has white spots on the edges. Lark sparrows are not typically found east of the Mississippi river in the U.S., nor in most parts of Canada. They spend the breeding season in the central and western parts of the U.S. and then winter in Mexico. Look for them in grasslands, plains and prairies. Males “dance”for females during courtship, and these dances can last for several minutes.
11. American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)
American Tree sparrows breed in the far northern tundra’s of North America, then migrate quite a distance down to spend the winter in the northern half of the U.S. and southern Canada. Identifying features of this sparrow are its slightly rounder shape, rusty cap, and bicolored bill that is dark on the top half and yellow on the bottom half. These sparrows forage in fields and are experts and shaking seeds loose from dried grasses. They will come to backyard feeders and forage through backyard weeds.
12. Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)
Grasshopper sparrows spend the winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico, then migrate north in the summer to breed across the middle and northern half of the eastern U.S. They are on the small side and have a slightly more squat appearance than other sparrows, with a shorter neck and flat head. Other unique features are a deep bill that gives their mouth a larger appearance when open, a white eye-ring and an orange-yellow spot in front of the eye. When not singing from a perch, these sparrows like to stay on the ground, running through open grassland, prairies, pastures and fields looking for insects and seeds. As their name suggests, during the summer they enjoy eating grasshoppers. They even feed them to their chicks, but will remove the legs first.
13. Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri)
Brewer’s sparrow have a smaller range than many other’s on this list, and more specialized. In the west and southwest they live in sagebrush habitat. They are so well adapted to the dry environment that they can go weeks without drinking. There is also a subspecies that lives in the timberline of Canadian mountains. This sparrow’s appearance is so drab, they have been called the “bird without a field mark” and lack any easily distinguishing feature. During the breeding season, males fill the early morning desert landscape with their long, trilling song.
14. Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)
If you imagine a map of North America, the range of Clay-colored sparrows would exist in a band right down the middle. They winter in Mexico in deserts and plains, then migrate up through the middle of the U.S. and spend the breeding season in the northern-central U.S. and central Canada in shrublands. Clay-colored sparrows actually like to keep their breeding and foraging areas separate, which makes their breeding territory fairly small. Their young will leave the nest well before they are able to fly. Nestlings quickly run to a nearby shrub where they will hide, while still being fed by the parents, for a full week before they can fly.
15. Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)
Lincoln’s sparrows are medium sized sparrows and their streaking appears more finely detailed. They have thin brown streaks along their chest and sides, chestnut striping on the head and a pale eye-ring. Lincoln’s sparrows spend summers in Canada and Alaska, migrate through the U.S. and winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico. These sparrows prefer to remain concealed in the vegetation of meadows and marshes. While migrating, they may mix in with flocks of other sparrows.
16. Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)
Savannah sparrows can be found throughout North America in abundance. Their name comes from the first specimen collected, which came from Savannah, Georgia. They can actually be found across many habitats in their wide range such as meadows, pastures, fields, tidal marshes and tundra. Savannah sparrows have a short tail, small beak, brown streaking on the breast and sides, and a yellow stripe over the eye. There are many subspecies in specific geographic locations and some have different coloring. These subspecies are reinforced by this sparrows tendency to migrate back to the same location where it hatched.
17. Leconte’s Sparrow (Ammospiza leconteii)
LeConte’s sparrow is perhaps the least common on our list. Found only in the marshy grassland’s of the central U.S. and Canada, this is a secretive sparrow that nearly always stays under cover. Due to the decline in grassland habitat, LeConte’s population have also declined and they are now on a “watch list” for vulnerable species. If they do pop into view, their gray eye patch and orange coloring on the face and sides is a good identifier.
Melanie is an environmental scientist, birdwatcher, and amateur photographer. She’s been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and learning about birds of all types. Over the years, Melanie has identified more than 250 bird species, with sightings of the Atlantic Puffin, Hawaiian Goose, and Arctic Tern among her most cherished.