BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Sparrows

Hawks. . . shorebirds. . . gulls. . . confusing fall warblers. Could there possibly be any other group of birds whose ID strikes as much fear and dread into the hearts and minds of so many Minnesota birders?

Well, actually, yes, there is. It seems a lot of birders out there long have had lots of problems with sparrows, and it’s surprising how few identification articles and books there are to supplement the information in their friendly neighborhood field guides. Indeed, this five-year series of Hindsight articles has only mentioned sparrows a few times in passing, so the following discussion of this group is long overdue.

Sparrows fall into the Family Emberizidae, and this includes 32 species which have been recorded in Minnesota. Of these, there are ten birds which don’t have “sparrow” in their names: Green-tailed, Spotted, and Eastern towhees; Lark Bunting; Dark-eyed Junco; McCown’s, Lapland, Smith’s, and Chestnut-collared longspurs; and Snow Bunting. [Author's Note, July 2016 – The longspurs and Snow Bunting were reclassified a few years ago and are no longer considered sparrows.]

Except for the longspurs, none of these ten presents any significant identification problems locally — and those female / immature / basic-plumaged longspurs would best be handled as the subject of their own ID article. There are also three Accidental sparrows which don’t occur here often enough to consider (Brewer’s, Black-throated, and Golden-crowned), and this leaves us with the 19 species discussed below.

Before commenting specifically on each sparrow, it might be helpful to keep in mind five general guidelines about this group:

1) As always — and has been mentioned ad infinitum in almost every other Hindsight article — don’t rely entirely on your field guide for help. Not even the National Geographic's field guide. No, make that especially the Geographic guide! Here is one bird group (and perhaps the only one?) for which I am even tempted to recommend your old Peterson or Robbins guide over Geographic. While Geographic’s pages on sparrows are superior in their accuracy and thoroughness of the text, maps, and plumage variations, the color plates are far from adequate. I would judge well more than half the species as inaccurately or unnaturally illustrated, only a minority of them are passable, and I can’t find a single one that I truly like.

Since it’s the pictures in a field guide that birders primarily refer to, and often it’s the only thing, I truly can’t imagine anyone successfully identifying sparrows in the field with only Geographic as their guide. My advice: by all means, read Geographic’s text, consult its range maps, and study how plumages vary by range, season, and age. But then look at almost any other field guide’s pictures to find out what most of the sparrows look like in real life. Better yet, as mentioned in, invest in The Sparrows of the United States and Canada, authored by James Rising and very nicely illustrated by David Beadle.

2) When studying an unfamiliar sparrow’s plumage, you’ll generally have better success in making an accurate ID by concentrating primarily on its head, throat, and breast patterns. These are the places on most sparrows where you’ll find the diagnostic field marks. Sometimes a sparrow’s bill or tail features are helpful as well, but relatively few species are distinguished by the patterns or colors of their back, wings, belly, or legs.

And, of course, as is the case with most bird groups, size, shape, behavior, and habitat can be just as useful as plumage features in the sparrow identification process. Note, for example, the smaller size of those in the genus Spizella (e.g., Field Sparrow) compared to sparrows in the genus Zonotrichia (like a White-crowned). Species of the Ammodramus genus (e.g., Grasshopper or Henslow’s) tend to look relatively large-billed, flat-headed, and short-tailed. Lincoln’s and Fox sparrows tend to be shier and more reluctant to emerge from the brush than Song Sparrows, which, in turn, are less likely to venture into a wide open field than a Savannah or Vesper.

3) Contrary to popular belief, almost any sparrow with streaked underparts can have its streaks coalesce into a central breast spot. For some reason, many birders are under the impression that only the Song Sparrow has this field mark, even though all Fox Sparrows share this feature, as do most Savannahs, as well as many Vespers, Baird’s, and Lincoln’s. And, though I can’t specifically remember if I’ve ever seen this on a Henslow’s, Le Conte’s, or Nelson’s Sharp-tailed, undoudtedly some of them show central breast spots as well.

Interestingly, this field mark even shows up in the juvenile plumage of some sparrows. All sparrows, at least all those found in Minnesota, have streaked underparts to some extent after fledging while in juvenile plumage, and this includes those species which later are unstreaked below as immatures and adults. And — guess what — these juveniles often have central breast spots, and it’s something I’ve noticed on Chippings, Swamps, and White-throateds.

By the way, juvenile plumage is not to be confused with immature or first-basic plumage. Normally it is only held a relatively short time in late summer on the breeding grounds, so it is not something you’d see in Minnesota on an American Tree, Harris’s, or White-crowned sparrow. Generally, this article will have little to say about juveniles, since this plumage is held for a relatively short time, and because most juveniles already exhibit some of that species’ key field marks.

4) A quiz. Take a look ahead at the 19 sparrows listed below, and name those which show white on the outer edges of their tails. Vesper and Lark are obviously correct choices, but you failed to pass the quiz if your answer stopped at those two species. Just as several other sparrows besides the Song can have streaked underparts with central breast spots, so it is that several sparrows can show white edges on their outer tail feathers.

This is something I have observed on some of the grassland species like Savannah, Grasshopper, and Le Conte’s, and it is especially noticeable on Baird’s Sparrows. I’ve also seen it on American Tree Sparrows and suspect that it is also visible on some other Spizellas (i.e., Chipping, Clay-colored, and Field). While the amount of white on these sparrows is more limited than on a Vesper or Lark sparrow, it is clearly visible, and it may lead to some confusion — if not misidentifications.

5) Finally, it’s worth repeating here some advice given in an earlier Hindsight article: if you want to learn some bird songs, there is no better place to start than with sparrows. One reason for this is almost all sparrow songs are distinctive and easily separable, unlike many sparrow plumages. An example would be the Baird’s Sparrow: if you’re eager to track down this Casual species for your Minnesota list, listen for its diagnostic song which is much more distinctive than its relatively nondescript plumage. The other advantage of knowing these songs is that singing sparrows, even the secretive ones, are easier to locate and study: they tend to sit up in plain sight rather than skulk in the undergrowth like, well, sparrows.

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Now that the preliminaries have been addressed, following are some brief comments on each Minnesota sparrow:

American Tree Sparrow

It is sometime between November and March and you see this obviously rusty-capped sparrow in your yard without a clearly visible black breast spot on its unstreaked underparts. Could it be a Chipping, which, after all, you saw around your house all spring and summer? Perhaps, but that species is unusual here in winter with only a handful of documented records — and besides, winter Chippings have streaked crowns with at most a mere hint of rust.

If you take a second look at the bird, odds are you’ll probably notice the dark line through the eye has a rusty tinge, as do the sides of its breast. Then examine the bill and note if the dark upper mandible contrasts with the pale lower one. All this adds up to American Tree Sparrow.

So what happened to the breast spot? One possibility is your bird fluffed up its breast feathers enough to conceal this spot — something tree sparrows often do. Another possibility is that, misled by the pictures on page 403 of your Geographic guide, you were expecting to see a sharply delineated, jet-black bullseye. In reality, many tree sparrows have no more than a blurry dark smudge centered on its gray breast, and it could easily be overlooked.

Chipping Sparrow

Since so many birders are unaware of this, it’s worth repeating here that a Chipping Sparrow’s cap in late fall and winter is streaked and often devoid of rust. At this time of year a Chipping simply does not look like it does in summer, nor does its cap look like an American Tree Sparrow’s. What a Chipping does resemble in fall and winter, though, is a Clay-colored Sparrow, and then these two can be very difficult to separate. This identification problem seldom occurs here in winter, when a Clay-colored would be even rarer than the Chipping, but adults of both species in fall are present in Minnesota.

Field guides have long mentioned the difference in rump colors between the two (Chipping gray, Clay-colored brown), but folded wings almost always get in the way. Another difference mentioned is the unmarked lores of the Clay-colored as opposed as the Chipping’s black eye line continuing into the lores; however, on some Chippings (mostly immatures?) the lores can look almost entirely clear. The thing to do then if the rump and lores are hard to see is to examine the lower edge of the brown cheek patch: on a Clay-colored it is bordered with black; on a Chipping it is unmarked. Clay-coloreds also tend to have a bolder malar streak (or “whisker”) than Chippings.

Clay-colored Sparrow

Since the primary ID problem with this sparrow involves the Chipping Sparrow, see the previous section. But there is another difficulty many birders have with this sparrow: they fail to appreciate its most distinctive field mark. Again, I have to fault the Geographic guide (page 404) for not showing the Clay-colored’s obvious and clearly delineated gray nape, which nicely contrasts with the buffy tones on its underparts. This feature, by the way, is visible on both immature and adult Clay-coloreds; unfortunately, immature Chippings also share this same gray-and-buff contrast.

Field Sparrow

It’s migration time, and you’re out sorting through a flock of sparrows when you come upon some with pink bills and rusty crowns. A quick check through the field guides and you’ve concluded they must be Field Sparrows. An understandable conclusion, to be sure, but not necessarily a correct one. It seems the popular field guides have failed you again by not adequately showing what an immature White-crowned really looks like. Its crown stripes are actually reddish brown, and, coupled with the pink bill, it could easily be mistaken for a Field Sparrow.

Note, though, how much smaller a Field Sparrow is and how its eye ring gives it a dazed or blank facial expression. An immature White-crowned is not only a larger sparrow, but to my eye it always has a unique small-headed and peaked-crowned profile. Of course, your Geographic guide (page 417) fails by a long shot to accurately illustrate this profile, or its true crown color.

Vesper Sparrow

Once again, I’m afraid, it’s time to criticize the pictures in Geographic. First of all, if you still own the second edition take a look at the Vesper Sparrow on page 393. Then, examine the new illustration on page 415 in the third edition. Now for the quiz: which one accurately depicts this species in real life? Unfortunately — and almost predictably — the answer is neither one. The picture in the second edition shows nothing of a white eye ring, and this is perhaps this species’ most important field mark! Meanwhile, the third edition still fails to portray a bold enough eye ring, the rusty lesser wing coverts are absent (no, this mark isn’t always visible, but more often than not this diagnostic feature is), and the bird’s posture and shape are unnatural.

Lark Sparrow

Finally, a sparrow with no ID problems! Given any view at all of this unique species, it’s hard to imagine it being confused with anything else.

Savannah Sparrow

As pointed out earlier, don’t be surprised to see a Savannah with its breast streaks merging into a central breast spot or with white edges on its outer tail feathers. Otherwise, as long as the diagnostic yellow lores are visible, most birders can recognize this widespread species. The problem, however, is that on many Savannahs (especially immatures in fall?) this yellow is not evident, and then confusion with Song Sparrow is likely.

This Savannah vs. Song ID problem is something I admit having trouble with at times, and it then takes a second look at a combination of features to resolve the identification. What I look for, relative to the Song Sparrow, is the Savannah’s paler plumage overall, its usually thinner malar stripe, the less densely streaked underparts, a shorter tail, and its brighter pink legs.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Here is another grassland sparrow which can have white edges on its tail, and, as is especially characteristic of this genus, it is large-billed, flat-headed, short-tailed. Also note its dark smudge on the ear coverts (a feature shared by other Ammodramus sparrows), while the lack of a malar stripe (atypical in this genus) contributes to its mostly plain facial pattern. Like most grassland sparrows, Grasshoppers have white median crown stripes. Some show obvious eye rings while others do not, and most have yellow lores. Perhaps its most important field mark (except in juvenile plumage) would be the unstreaked underparts — about the only other grasslands sparrow with this feature would be the dissimilar Clay-colored.

Baird’s Sparrow

Of the grassland sparrows which aren’t supposed to have white outer tail feathers, the Baird’s Sparrow shows the most white — enough so that one flying away could even be mistaken for a Vesper. Conversely, for a species which supposedly has a “necklace” of breast streaks, the Baird’s typically shows nothing more than random streaks without any clear pattern. More diagnostic is the ocher or dull orange median crown stripe which is widest at the nape, with this color on fresh- plumaged birds washing down a bit on to the face. Also note the Baird’s face pattern: the dark spot on the ear coverts and the double malar marks, with the upper malar streak usually extending back along the ear coverts towards the ear coverts smudge.

Two other thoughts on Baird’s Sparrows to keep in mind. First, as previously mentioned, the song of this species is more diagnostic than any plumage feature. And, second, if you think you see a Baird’s in Minnesota, remember this is a very unusual species here, so that a second critical look accompanied by field notes which eliminate more likely species would be advisable.

Henslow’s Sparrow

Now, if you really want to see a sparrow with a well defined “necklace,” this is the one to look for, more so than the Baird’s. Other features to be aware of on the Henslow’s are its unique dull greenish head color in combination with the reddish-brown wings. Note as well this sparrow has a white median crown stripe, like a Grasshopper, and it shares the Grasshopper’s characteristic Ammodramus shape. Finally, its facial pattern is virtually the same as on a Baird’s: ear coverts smudge and double malar streaks.

More difficult to describe about the Henslow’s is its status in Minnesota. It is decidedly a rare bird in the state, so just a brief look and casual identification are not recommended, but it can appear almost anywhere in the state with suitable habitat. And just what makes that habitat suitable is not entirely clear — and would have to be the subject of its own article.

Le Conte’s Sparrow

To its credit, the third edition of the Geographic field guide did at least one thing right with the sparrows, and that was to improve the illustrations for the Le Conte’s and the two Sharp-tailed sparrow species (page 411). These improvements, however, still leave something to be desired, since they don’t clearly illustrate the difference between the Le Conte’s white median crown stripe as opposed to the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed’s gray stripe. And this difference is often the best way to separate these two species, since many Le Conte’s Sparrows can appear as orange as a Sharp-tailed on its face and breast.

Both these sparrows have gray triangles on their ear coverts with a dark smudge behind, but the Le Conte’s also differs from the Sharp-tailed in its bill color (a beautiful powder blue in good light), while the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed differs from the Le Conte’s with its bold white back stripes and its gray nape patch which is almost reminiscent of a Clay-colored.

Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow

[Author's Note, September 2010 – After this article was published, this species' name was changed to Nelson's Sparrow.]

Since there seems to be no potential for the recently split Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow to occur anywhere near Minnesota, it’s unlikely “our” Sharp-tailed sparrow should be mistaken for anything other than a Le Conte’s, which is discussed above. About the only other thing worth mentioning is how uncommon and local the Nelson’s Sharp-tailed is in certain northern Minnesota marshes, and that this sparrow is not often detected in the state during migration. Routine identifications and reports of this species here, therefore, would have to be of dubious validity.

Fox Sparrow

Thus far, only the Lark Sparrow has been classified as an error-free identification zone, but now I would also say the Fox Sparrow is almost as unique in appearance. About the only thing I’ve heard birders confusing it with has been the Hermit Thrush, but given a decent view these two species are easy enough to separate. I also suppose some brighter Song Sparrows, which can look reddish-brown rather than just brown, might be mistaken for a Fox.

Song Sparrow

While confusion with the Savannah is easy to understand (see above), the Song Sparrow can also closely resemble the Lincoln’s Sparrow. This would happen with a Song in juvenile plumage, since then its underparts can be washed with buff and the streaking can be finer and narrower — and both features are characteristic of the Lincoln’s.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Besides the juvenile Song Sparrow, there is yet another sparrow which can suggest a Lincoln’s. Note that both juvenile and immature Swamps are finely streaked below (with juveniles also showing some buff on the underparts), and both Swamp and Lincoln’s sparrows have similar areas of gray on their faces. As a result, more than once over the years I’ve had initial and brief looks at sparrows that I thought were going to be Lincoln’s until a better second look actually showed them to be Swamp Sparrows.

Swamp Sparrow

This sparrow’s similarity to Lincoln’s aside, what else might a Swamp Sparrow be confused with? Though field guides often group it with the other rusty-capped sparrows (e.g., American Tree, Chipping, and Field), it doesn’t really resemble these all that much. One thing about the Swamp Sparrow is how dark it appears overall, with the palest part of its plumage being the whitish throat. I would describe this sparrow as the darkest one of them all, with its dingy gray underparts and dark rusty back and wings. Note also this bird’s breeding habitat: like the name suggests, look for this sparrow in wooded swamps and — even more frequently — in cattail-type marshes.

[Author's Note, July 2016 – Many Swamp Sparrows show a dark spot in the center of the breast and then can easily be mistaken for American Tree Sparrow.]

White-throated Sparrow

Like the Lark and Fox sparrows, the White-throated’s ID presents hardly any challenge. What may be unfamiliar about this familiar species, however, is its juvenile plumage. As mentioned earlier, “unstreaked” sparrows like the White-throated are streaked below as juveniles, and some even include a tree-sparrow-like central breast spot among the streaks. Another point about this sparrow is that for years I had mistakenly assumed that White-throateds with brown and buff crown stripes and off-white throats were immatures — that all adults had the crisp black-and-white crowns and clean white throats. In reality, full adult White-throateds in breeding plumage also come in those duller shades.

Harris’s Sparrow

Here is one last sparrow which involves no serious ID problems. I am aware that novice birders have mistaken male House Sparrows for Harris’s, but that was only because they noticed nothing more than their black faces. A more interesting ID problem that some beginning birders have had, however, involves immature Harris’s Sparrows and male Lapland Longspurs in winter: both have pinkish bills, buffy faces, and blackish markings on their breasts.

White-crowned Sparrow

Early in this article, the Field Sparrow section included some criticism of the inaccurate immature White-crowned Sparrow illustrations found in the field guides. The result: immature White-crowneds mistaken for Fields. Of course, I would rate the Geographic’s picture of this plumage (page 417) less accurate than those in the other guides. It is also arguably worse than any other of Geographic’s sparrow illustrations — and I still say it looks like a female House Sparrow!