Whether the generic approach to sparrow ID primarily from Kauffman’s new Advanced Birding book, along with info from the Rising and Beadle sparrow book, some tips from the Pete Dunnes Field Guide Companion, and bits and pieces from Ken’s classes and elsewhere. Unfortunately I think to use this approach it is necessary to just memorize a small amount of information, and then to build on that information with understanding and experience.
To get to a copy of this table in a word format Click Here then download the word file, open the download, and you can save it or print it out. If you don’t have microsoft word and would prefer a less attractive google document click here.
Here are the first 6 Genus summaries in the first table followed by the next 6 in the second table.
|Aimophila & Peucaea||Spizella||Pooecetes||Chondestes||Amphispiza||Calamospiza(Lark bunting)|
|Size||Medium||Small||Large||Rather large||Medium Large||Large|
|Bulk||Heavy Bodied||Bulky||Fairly slim for large sparrow||Avg.||Bulky|
|Tail||Long usually rounded||Medium-long, usually notched, variation between species helpful||Medium long squared||Long rounded||Short and wide|
|Head||Rather flat crowned||Rounded||Fairly rounded||Large rounded||Slightly flattened crown||Large and rounded|
|Habitat||Dense vegetation near ground||Brushy woodlands or edges, not grass or marsh||Very open habitats incl. grasslands, brush areas, avoids dense cover||Brushy near open ground||On or near ground in dry open country||Non-breeding in open ground, brush, farm country|
|Behavior||Shy, quiet, near ground,flush reluctantly||Feed on ground, perch in trees, often conspicuous perches in open||Not secretive, perches in the open often||Conspicuous perches, flys high between perches with sharp metallic call note||Perch in open, not secretive (exc. Five-striped), Sage runs with tail cocked, bobs tail.||Feed on ground,, perch up in trees, often in the open|
|Groups||Pairs, never large flocks||Flock with own kind||In winter small loose flocks||Small loose flocks in migration and winter||Pairs or family groups, not large flocks||Tight flocks|
|Flight||High||Wide tail, broad rounded wings, contrasty look|
|Plumage||No distinct seasonal plumage||Several have seasonal variation||White outer tail feathers in flight, darkly outlined ear patch.||Very Conspicuous markings||Distinctive markings||Conspicuous dark underwings, pale patches on coverts|
|Vocal-izations:||musical||Thin, lisping call notes of some|
|Species||4 Peucaea: Rufous-winged, Botteri’s, Cassin’s Bachmann’s Amophila: Rufous-crowned||Am. Tree, Chipping, Clay-colored, Field, Black-chinned, Worthens||Vesper,||Lark||Black-throated, Sage, Five-striped||Lark Bunting|
|Overall Summary||Medium sized, plump, rather flat crowned, secretive, dense, hug ground||Small, notched-tailed, flocking, feed on ground and perch in trees||Vesper, large, bulky, square tailed, non-secretive, dark ear patch, white outer tail feathers in flight||Lark: Large, slim, long tailed, conspicuous markings, open perches.||Medium sized, fairly conspicuous exc. Five striped, pairs or alone.||Large, bulky, conspicuously dark, easy breeding, non-breeding contrasty.|
|Size||Small||Medium||Large||Medium Large||Medium-Large to Large||Small-medium|
|Tail||Short-ratty||Short-tailed||Medium Length (longer in West)||Longish, rounded or squared tips||Fairly long square tipped||White-outer tail feathers very obvious|
|Head||Rounded||Flat foreheads||Rounded||Rounded||Slightly Peaked Crown||rounded|
|Bills||Small||Vary between species||Varies but generally large||Avg.||Proportionally not large||small|
|Habitat||Open fields, marshes||Species specific grasslands, precise habitat a clue to identification||Low dense vegetation||Usually dense vegetation||Brushy areas or woodland edges||Breed Northern Forests, winter in open near cover|
|Behavior||Bold, not elusive, perches in open often||Hard to flush, fly low, dive into vegetation||Scratch with 2 feet, hopping backwards||Usually secretive, Song sometimes not||Feed on ground, perch conspicuously when disturbed||When disturbed move into trees or shrubs|
|Groups||Small loose flocks||Strictly solitary in non-breeding season, never flock||Often in small mixed flocks, never in flocks of own kind||Usually solitary or pairs, never flocks||Almost always in flocks||Small to larger flocks.|
|Flight||Light and buoyant, longer broader wings than other sparrows of open habitat||Weak labored flight||Darting|
|Plumage||Variable, most with yellow lores &/or supercillium||Getting a good look difficult.||Three subspecies may be split in future||Usually distinctive||Distinctive, hooded look.|
|Vocal-izations:||Call note distinctive hard smack except in Thick-billed race in CA and OR.||All N. of Mexico share call note a “cheff”||Call notes sharp and distinctive|
|Species||Savannah||Grasshopper, Baird’s, Henslow’s, Le Conte’s, Nelson’s Saltmarsh Seaside||Fox||Song, Lincoln’s, Swamp||White-throated, Harris’ White-crowned, Golden-crowned||Dark-eyed(subspecies more of a challenge) Yellow-eyed|
|General Summary||Savannah: default field sparrow, small, ratty tail||Medium sized, weak flying, short tailed, secretive grasslands birds. Fly and dive into grass. Solitary, never flock.||Fox, may be split. Large, plump, low dense vegetation, scratch with 2 feet, respond to pishing||Largish, plump, long tailed, tend to be secretive, never flocks, most have cheff call note.||Crowned sparrows: Fairly large or bigger, plump, long square tailed, birds of brush or edges, tend to flock, call notes good to know.||Small to medium, round headed, white outer tail feathers. Flocking in winter, darting flight.|
Unfortunately I think to use this approach it is necessary to memorize a modest amount of information, and then to build on that information with understanding and experience .I’m no sparrow expert, and so I tried to collate this information in a format that may help in this learning, as well as organize the information so that it is easier to make sense of an learn.
If I’ve learned anything from this homework, it is that trying to learn to ID sparrows just from field marks alone is going to leave a few birds identified and a lot of LBJs. Too often the view is brief, obstructed,or distant. If we take what we know from a brief glimpse and combine that with what we know at the time we see the bird: range, habitat, season, etc, and try to think about what we have seen: estimate of general shape and size, flight appearance, flocking or alone, and behavior we can usually narrow the options down to just a few choices. Ideally we will be able to make a good guess as to the genus of the bird. Then if we know the birds in that genus or two that are possible or likely in the area we are birding we can limit the choices.
Second is that it’s really important to know the common sparrows really well. Knowing Song sparrow as the typical Melospiza, Savannah, Grasshopper as the Ammodramus found in most areas, and the crowned Zonotrichia sparrows we will be able to note if a bird is different from these common species. Knowing female house sparrow from every angle and every detail, and house sparrow calls will keep us from looking carefully at every churry in every bush in every neighborhood we bird.
So let’s look at some sillhouettes and then at these common sparrows in more detail than we might usually.
Song Sparrow as the Default Melospiza sparrow: remember when you travel the subspecies vary considerably. Let’s look at the things that don’t change. Face: Mostly gray with Strong submalar stripe. Broad grayish eyebrow stripe. Streaked back and flanks. Wings: often rust brown in greater coverts. Long rounded or doubly rounded tail, pumped in flight. White chin. Hops. Lankier than Fox, more robust and broad-brush streaks than Lincolns.
Savannah Sparrow: The default field sparrow in many areas. Quite variable: Common to all subspecies: Neat and cleanly marked, white underparts with three facial stripes, behind eye, moustachial and submalar. Face color quite variable. Short tail, square in flight, notched at perch. Small bill. Median crown stripe usually whitish.
Grasshopper Sparrow as typical Ammodramus sparrow: esc. Juvenile unstreaked underparts, white median crown stripe, flat forehead, complete eyering, spot on ear auricular, streaked back, rufous pattern of rufous spots on back, large bill. Remember Florida birds darker, song may be different.
First Winter White Crowned vs. White Throated vs. Golden Crowned:
WC: Yellow bill, Bold stripe behind eye, head pattern dully approaches adult. Short primary projection.
WT: Gray bill, yellow lores dull, has very sharp lower border of throat like adult, unlike WC. Smaller and plumper than other zonotrichia. More rufous on wings.
GC: Gray bill, faint eye stripe, head pattern dully approached adult.
Song vs. Lincolns: If you get a good look at adults, not too tough. With a brief look- Look for tail length, much shorter in Lincolns, Bill: more slender in Lincolns, overall finer streaking on back, sides and breast.
House Sparrow: Female- streaked back, unstreaked underparts, buffy eyebrow stripe,
Check out these two videos. Look not at field marks, but shape, size, tail, head, etc.
There are lots of other great online videos. There are unfortunately few that show sparrows in flight.