Distinguishing the house sparrow will help you identify other sparrows

Distinguish House Sparrow to identify sparrows

Sort the sparrows are an ongoing challenge, and while there are many helpful resources available, one species – the house sparrow – is often overlooked.

Native to Eurasia, the species is naturalized and common in human settlements around the world thanks to an adaptation around 11,000 years ago that allowed it to digest the complex carbohydrates contained in grains grown by humans. House sparrows essentially evolved with human agriculture.

The species is not closely related to sparrows native to North America. Our sparrows were named by early naturalists because of their superficial similarity to the sparrows of Britain, but they are now classified as a separate family (the New World sparrows) and have many fundamental differences from the sparrows of the Old World as the House Sparrow.

The house sparrow is most common in urban settings or around farms with livestock. It tends to congregate in relatively tight groups and generally does not mix with other sparrows. But when you learn to distinguish the house sparrow quickly, it will help you a lot in your quest to identify other sparrows.

One of the biggest differences is in the overall posture and shape. The house sparrow looks relatively stocky and has a short neck, legs and tail, and it usually squats and moves more slowly. In comparison, New World sparrows are slimmer and more elongated, with more active and agile movements, often flapping their wings or tails.


The house sparrow’s underside is never streaked, so if you see the absence of streaks, that rules out a lot of New World sparrows. And its overall color is relatively dull and dull. Native species like the White-crowned Sparrow have more colorful patterns and sharper contrasts. For example, compare the tertials (the feathers at the top of the folded wing). In the House Sparrow, the tertials are dull with a simple pattern of paler brownish edges; on the White-crowned Sparrow, the same feathers have a brighter and more complex pattern of black, buff and white.

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The voice is also very different. The house sparrow utters a variety of relatively low, raspy chirps and chatters, while New World sparrows produce high-pitched notes and a variety of whistling or trilling songs.

There are many other differences in the details of shape, color, pattern, structure and behavior. Study these illustrations to find more appearance variations and look for them the next time you see sparrows.


This article first appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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