Sparrow Identification- Generic Approach +

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
Bill Small bills Avg. avg Avg. Large
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.

 Table 2

Passerculus Ammodramus Passerella Melospiza Zonotrichia Junco
Size Small Medium Large Medium Large Medium-Large to Large Small-medium
Bulk Medium-light Chunky Chunky Plump Plump Avg.
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.


One thought on “Sparrow Identification- Generic Approach +

  1. Ed-

    Great work on the website. Thanks for making a virtual home for the club. Looking forward to seeing the club and the website grow.


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