Spring Sparrows: Who's Who?

Wednesday, May 6, 2020
Sparrow identification is one of the most difficult tasks each birdwatcher faces. Even experienced birders can find themselves flip-flopping between species and second-guessing themselves. This is because sparrows are quick, active, have similar mannerisms to one another, and are typically some variation of brown and more brown - gaining them the slang title 'LBJs' or 'Little Brown Jobs'. There are a lot of LBJs flitting around this time of year, but in this blog we are talking about four who will typically visit bird feeders: Chipping, Song, White-crowned, and White-throated. These species are similar in shape, size, colour, and behaviour, making them difficult to differentiate from one another while hopping around underneath feeders. Hopefully this article will give you some of the basic info required to transform your LBJs into their actual species names. 

Chipping Sparrow (top left), Song Sparrow (top right), White-crowned Sparrow (bottom left, White-throated Sparrow (bottom right)

Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Adult Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

Size: Both sexes are similar in size. Length of 4.7" - 5.9", with a wingspan of around 8". Marginally larger than a chickadee. Overall slender body; fairly long tail; medium-sized bill.
Colour pattern & distinctive markings: Breeding adults have a bright rusty crown, pale face with a black line through the eye, and an unstreaked frosty belly. Immature individuals and non-breeding adults are similar in overall appearance but paler in colour with a subdued rust-coloured crown.
Behaviour: Primarily ground feeders but will often visit bird feeders, though they can be shy when other birds are present. Can typically be found hopping on the ground near or under cover of shrubs, long grasses, or trees, or singing loudly from treetops & outer limbs. Click here to listen to Chipping Sparrow sounds.
Fun fact: Brown-headed Cowbirds often parasitize Chipping Sparrow nests, leaving the tiny sparrow to care for the cowbird's offspring.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Adult Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Size: Both sexes are similar in size. Length of 4.7" - 6.7", with a wingspan ranging from 7.1" to 9.4". Similar size to a chickadee, slightly larger than a Chipping Sparrow. Bulky bodied, fairly rounded head with a short bill, and long, rounded tail.
Colour pattern & distinctive markings: Heavily streaked on breast, with spot in the center of the chest. Striped crown with russet stripe through the eye, and distinct malar or mustache stripe. Wide variance in colour among individuals across North America, ranging from light brown, dark brown, reddish-brown, and grey tones. 
Behaviour: Often found through long-grassed fields or within dense shrubbery, and can be seen under bird feeders foraging for insects and fallen seed. Flights are short and quick between perches, with a distinct downward tail pump action. Males sing their loud, trilly song from exposed areas such as fence posts or low trees. Click here to listen to Song Sparrow sounds.
Fun fact: Song Sparrows are one of the most regionally diverse species in North America, with 24 recognized subspecies and 52 forms.

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

Adult White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

 Both sexes are similar in size. Length of 5.9" - 6.3", with a wingspan of around 9". Slightly larger than a Song Sparrow. A large sparrow with a smooth, or peaked head depending on disposition of the individual, relatively small bill, and long tail.
Colour pattern & distinctive markings: Adults have greyish-brown underparts, yellow, orange, or pinkish coloured bill, and bold black and white stripes on the head down to the bill. Immature individuals are similar in pattern, but with brown and grey stripes on the head, making them more difficult to properly ID.
Behaviour: Like most sparrows, White-crowned are often found hopping along the ground or flying through low, dense foliage in brushy environments. They can sometimes be seen doing an action called "double-scratching", which is a quick hop backwards to turn over leaves followed by a forward hop and pounce. This move is used to turn up seeds in debris along the ground. Males sing their sweet whistling songs from treetops or outer limbs. Click here to listen to White-crowned Sparrow sounds.
Fun fact: White-crowned Sparrows are known to share territories with Fox Sparrows, but often chase Chipping Sparrows until they leave the area.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
Adult White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
Photo by Brenda Hartley-Foubert

Size: Both sexes are similar in size. Length of 6.3" - 7.1", with a wingspan of around 9". Slightly larger than a Song Sparrow. A robust sparrow with a plump body, rounded head, prominent bill, and long and narrow tail.
Colour pattern & distinctive markings: Adults have brown upperparts, with grey on the chest and belly. The head has a striking pattern of black and white stripes on the crown, yellow spot between the eye and bill, and a bold white patch on the throat. Immature individuals are similar in appearance to adults, but have brown and black stripes on the crown and less yellow between the eye and bill.
Behaviour: Very similar behaviour to White-crowned, often found hopping along the ground or flying through low, dense foliage in brushy environments. Also known to do the "double-scratch" while foraging along the forest floor. They will also grab and toss leaves while looking for seeds and insects. Males sing their sweet Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada from treetops and outer limbs. Click here to listen to White-throated Sparrow sounds.
Fun fact: Even though they are not closely related and have different appearances, occasionally White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos will mate. Their hybrid offspring look like dull, greyish coloured White-throated Sparrows.

Adult Chipping Sparrow with live mealworm
Photo by Marlene Trott
Attracting sparrows to your yard
  • Offer sunflower, safflower, and millet in a ground feeder. While sparrows will happily forage on the ground, providing a covered ground feeder like our EcoTough Ground Flythrough Feeder will offer security and shelter from predators and inclement weather, and also help to keep seed from spoiling on your lawn. You can also try offering live mealworms in a feeder like our Spiral Treat Tray, which seem to be favoured by Chipping Sparrows like the one pictured above. 
  • Provide a consistent source of fresh, clean water. All birds need water and providing them with it in your yard means that they will not need to travel to find it. 
  • Provide natural cover, nesting habitat, and food sources by planting native plants such as serviceberry or red osier dogwood. Brush piles can also be used to provide shelter for ground feeding species.

Finally, some tips to help with identifying any bird species you may come across in your yard or elsewhere. Take time to learn the birds in your area before making ID assumptions, this can save time and take the guess-work out of the identification process. Take photos of the bird if possible to help with identification later on. Our minds tend to change or add features we may or may not have actually seen, but photos show it exactly how it was. Have a regionally specific field guide handy, there are a lot of birds in the world that may look similar to the one you saw, but you can narrow your search significantly by only searching for birds that are typically found in your area. If all else fails (or you're just looking for a second opinion) seek out input from other birders. We have a great online birding community who is full knowledge and helpful tips! Join Ontario Birds by WBU Barrie on Facebook to share your photos, sightings, questions, and more.

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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