Once you become a bird watcher, you become aware that many facts you took for granted are not 100% accurate. For example, “call a spade a spade” or “call a sparrow a sparrow.” Not necessarily untrue. However, there are twenty-one different types of sparrows listed in my Eastern North America bird book. So “sparrow” is clearly not specific enough.
I want to take some time in this post to point out of the differences between some of the most common sparrows, so you can begin to notice them yourselves. I am going to focus on four: House Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and White-Throated Sparrows.
The House Sparrow is the most obvious starting point. Ubiquitous, especially whenever food is out for the taking, you see them in yards, woods, parks and city streets. I have so many of the little guys in my yard at this point I think they may have started having extra broods just because of my feeders.
Male and female House Sparrows look different. The males have a whitish-gray belly with a black bib on the upper chest, flanked by a white patch on either side. The black from the bib carries up their neck to under their eyes. A gray cap sits on top of their heads, with two patches of brown running from the sides of their heads into their brown wings, back and tail feathers. The brown on their wings, back and tail is broken up with thin stripes of black.
The females are a bit more muted and boring, but if you look closely their feathers have a few secrets to share. The female’s feathers are mostly tan, with her underbelly being lighter than the feathers on her head and back. If you look closely you will notice she has a light stripe on both sides of her head which include her eyes. The wings of the female are similar to her male counterpart, being a darker brown, with stripes of white and black mixed in.
The House Sparrow is in fact not a sparrow at all. Introduced to North American from Europe in the 1850s, they are actually from the Weaver Finch family. Their populations thrived in their new home and today they can be seen throughout the United States all year long. They are also a common sight because they are not remotely scared of people. Much less skittish than other birds, they have the advantage for scavenging food in busy areas.
Food isn’t the only thing they scavenge. Their nests have been known to incorporate paper and even plastic into the weave. They usually have 4-6 eggs each nesting, with two or three broods in a season. They are at it like rabbits! They like cavities to nest in, so they are big fans of bird houses.
Chipping Sparrows are also fairly common to my yard in the summer. They visit feeders and they forage the ground around them, so you can easily spot them hopping about. One of the biggest physical differences between a Chipping Sparrow and the other three species I am discussing, is that the Chipping Sparrow is smaller. The Chipping Sparrow is five inches to the House Sparrow’s six inches and when you are that small, one inch does make a difference when it comes to aggressive behavior at the feeders.
Unlike the House Sparrow, all Chipping Sparrows look alike, regardless of gender. The Chipping Sparrow’s most defining feature is its light brown or chestnut cap. Its chest is gray and it has dark, streaked brown wings with hints of white. If you are able to see one of these little guys close enough (probably not with the naked eye) you will also notice a black stripe going across his face, in line with his beak and across his eye. This black stripe created a gray stripe above it on both sides, which separates the black from the edge of the brown cap.
Chipping Sparrows may be little, but don’t underestimate their toughness. They can survive without a drink for three weeks. They don’t try to brave a northern winter though. Instead they head to Mexico for the winter months.
Chipping Sparrows typically have about four eggs per nest and they usually have two broods each season. The female is the primary caregiver, incubating the eggs and feeding the new hatchlings. During the female’s incubation of the eggs, the male Chipping Sparrow will try to find additional mates.
Song Sparrows are a bit less common to my yard. But they do visit on occasion and I often see them and hear them on hikes. Not unlike the Red-Winged Blackbird, they are particularly partial to marshy areas and can often be found near water.
As you can image from its name, the Song Sparrow likes to sing a lot. Often their song is the best way to spot them. They are loners but they aren’t bashful. Often you will find them perched on a conspicuous branch or reed singing their hearts out. This is because they not only sing to attract a mate, but also to mark their territory. To hear the song of a Song Sparrow, click here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Song+Sparrow+%281%29
Though they will visit the vicinity of a feeder, Song Sparrows rarely go to the feeder directly. Instead you will see them hopping around beneath a feeder, gleaning seeds from the ground. You will recognize the Song Sparrow by the streaks on its chest. Song Sparrows are white or cream with random short, dark brown streaks running vertically along their chest. If you look closely, you will also see a larger spot, usually near the center of their chest. Their wings are similar to those of other sparrows, brown with stripes of white and lighter brown. There is also a brown stripe on each cheek, breaking up the white on the Song Sparrow’s face.
White-Throated Sparrows are my personal favorite. They usually come to the feeder alone, and glean around on the ground looking for food. They aren’t aggressive with other birds, but neither are they intimidated. They are about the same size as the House Sparrow, and they usually won’t be pushed around. Like the Chipping Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrows head to Mexico for the winter.
I think they are the coolest looking sparrows with race-car yellow-stripe eyebrows. Besides the yellow over its eyes, the White-Throated Sparrow has…you guessed it: white feathers on its throat. While both male and female White-Throated Sparrows look similar, across both sexes there are some which have white stripes and others that have tan stripes on their heads. Based on what I have read, birds with white stripes seem to prefer mating with birds with tan stripes, but I am not sure what the deal is with that.
Hopefully after this little introduction you will start to spot the differences in Sparrows yourself!