Identify Meadow Sparrows With These Tips

Identify Meadow Sparrows With These Tips

When I was learning to identify birds, I spent hours wondering about sparrows that, in retrospect, were probably all the same species. It was frustrating, but later I turned the experience into identification tips. If you see a compact, ridged sparrow in an open habitat, start by asking yourself: is it a meadow sparrow?

Often the answer will be: Yes. The Savannah Sparrow is one of the most common native sparrows in North America. Its breeding range extends from the shores of the Arctic Ocean in northern Alaska and Canada to the highlands of southern Mexico, with an isolated population in the high mountains of Guatemala. In winter, it moves out of northern regions, but it can still be found coast to coast in the southern United States, with a few north of the Great Lakes and coastal regions of southern Canada. In migration, it can be seen virtually anywhere on the continent.

This bird has a wide range partly because it is adapted to a wide variety of open habitats with low vegetation. It can be found nesting in native grasslands, agricultural fields, pastures, tundra, or salt marshes. In winter, it abandons the tundra but still abounds in other habitats, as well as in other open areas such as golf courses and among dune grass on beaches.

Outside the breeding season, Savannah Sparrows form small, loose groups, usually of fewer than 20 birds, although they may gather in larger groups in late summer. Unlike many prairie or marsh sparrows, they are not particularly shy. Some sparrows found in similar habitats (such as Baird’s, Henslow’s, Nelson’s or LeConte’s sparrows) may be solitary prowlers, very difficult to spot, but small groups of savannah sparrows may forage in open ground or roost on fence wires where they are easy to see.


Savannah Sparrows have few obvious ground markings and overall resemble Song Sparrows, which are also widespread (and variable). Some savannahs are easily distinguished by the bright yellow above the lores, but this may be faint or absent, so shape and behavior are more consistent clues. In flight, Savannahs appear relatively buoyant, hovering slightly above the ground; most other lesser prairie sparrows tend to appear heavier and more laborious in flight, flapping furiously to stay aloft. Among the open country sparrows, the evening sparrow is the one that behaves most like the savannah, but it shows clear differences in pattern.

Individual variations in color occur throughout the range of the Savannah Sparrow, but there are also striking regional variations along the edges of the continent. The “Ipswich” shape is a sought-after specialty of the beaches of the Atlantic coast in winter. Belding’s Savannah Sparrow is restricted to salt marshes in southern California and Baja. The “large-billed” form, likely to be considered a full species in the future, appears in southern California as a post-breeding visitor from Mexico. These three distinctive sparrows are shown in photos by Brian Small in this column.

What to look for

The size and the shape. A small sparrow with a moderately short tail and (in most areas) a small beak.
Habitat and behavior. Very open situations: meadows, agricultural fields, marshes, beach grass in coastal dunes, tundra (summer). Often in small groups, not shy or hard to see.
Crown pattern. Dark crown, usually divided by a narrow white median band (dull or missing in some areas).
Face pattern. Well-defined dark eye line, dark lower edge of ear-coverts, narrow dark whisker mark. Often but not always yellow above the lores.
Below. Fine streaks on the breast and extending down the flanks, with great geographical variation in the darkness of the streaks.

Savannah Sparrow in Kamloops, British Columbia.Savannah Sparrow, adult. June in Kamloops, British Columbia. Photo by Brian E. Small

Certain elements of the facial pattern are seen in many sparrows (and many other species) because they define the edges of particular feather bands that are similarly arranged on most birds. The Savannah Sparrow has all of these generic markings, including a pale supercilium and malar stripe, dark stripes on the side of the crown, and dark lines behind the eye, along the lower edge of the ear-coverts and on the sides of the throat. Most sparrows have at least some of these markings, and some species, such as Song Sparrow, show them all. To be sure to identify the savannah sparrow, focus on learning its shape, behavior, general pattern, and color variations.

song sparrowSong Sparrow, adult. January in Riverside County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

In plumage, the bird most similar to the Savannah Sparrow is another widespread and variable species, the Song Sparrow. It lacks the yellow above the lores shown by many savannas, and its medial crown band is often duller; but most markings of the two species are similar and equally variable in both. Song sparrows are best identified by their different shape and behavior. They are distinctly longer-tailed, larger-headed, and stout-bodied birds, usually found in thickets and other dense vegetation (although they do occur with savannah sparrows in some marshes). If disturbed, they dive into dense cover, giving a strong number call notice. Savannah sparrows are more likely to roost in an open area and their calls are light, lisping sounds.

Savannah Sparrow, adult.Savannah Sparrow, adult. May in Kern County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

The amount of yellow above the lores of savannah sparrows is variable. It may be obvious, limited (like the bird in this photo), or completely absent. Another irregular marking is on the outer tail feathers. They are often paler than the rest of the tail, and in some they are distinctly white. This can be confusing as evening sparrows – often found in the same habitat as savannahs – are known for their contrasting white outer feathers. However, the Vesper Sparrow is a larger, longer-tailed bird. Its facial pattern is noticeably different, with fine streaks on the crown, a white eyering, and a dark, bold outline on the lower edge of the ear-coverts.

Savannah Sparrow Savannah Sparrow “Belding”, adult. March in San Diego County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

In the salt marshes of California’s southern coast, north of Santa Barbara County, the Belding’s Savannah Sparrow is a permanent resident. It is a small, dark morph, with blackish streaks on the underparts, often most visible where the broad dark stripes extend down the flanks. Genetic studies suggest that the beldingi subspecies, along with three other races found further south in Baja, may represent a separate species. However, a very similar subspecies (alaudinus) is found just north of beldingi and along most of the rest of the California coast. Genetically it may be closer to the typical Savannah Sparrow, but it may interbreed with the Belding form where their ranges meet, so the situation is still uncertain.

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Savannah Sparrow Savannah Sparrow, adult. January in San Diego County, California. Photo by Brian E. Small

This distinctly drab bird has an unusual distribution: it breeds only in Mexico, in the marshes around the northern and eastern edges of the Gulf of California, and it only enters the United States as a post-breeding visitor. . From early fall to early spring, small numbers can be found along the southern California coast (rarely as far north as Point Reyes) and inland around the edges of the Salton Sea. It appears much paler than other Savannah Sparrow populations found in the same areas, with much less contrast on its back and crown, and its beak is noticeably larger. There is a good chance that this form will be treated as a separate species, the Thick-billed Sparrow, in the future.

Savannah Sparrow “Ipswich”Savannah Sparrow “Ipswich”, adult. March in Ocean County, New Jersey. Photo by Brian E. Small

Across the continent from the large-billed morph, another pale bird, the “Ipswich” savannah sparrow, has an even more limited range. It nests only on Sable Island, about 100 miles off the coast of Nova Scotia, and rarely on the nearest mainland. Its winter range extends along beaches from the Atlantic coast south to the Carolinas, mostly in grass among the dunes. One of the largest and thickest forms of the Savannah Sparrow complex, it is recognized by its winter habitat and its attractive combination of pale gray and pale reddish-brown markings. Although the ‘Ipswich’ is sometimes considered a species in its own right, it interbreeds readily with the typical savannahs that roam as far as Sable Island, and genetic studies suggest it is not specifically distinct.

What’s in a name?

Savannah, an open grassland with scattered trees, is a habitat used by the Savannah Sparrow. But it’s a coincidence. In 1811, Alexander Wilson named the species for Savannah, Georgia, where he first found it.

Wilson wrote two accounts of this bird. In volume 3 of american ornithology, he called her Savannah Sparrow, while in Volume 4 he called her Savannah Finch. Both times he used the scientific name savannah. Today it is known by the scientific name Passerculus sandwichensis. Why the change?


The genus name, Passerculus, was invented by CL Bonaparte in 1838. It is not uncommon for a species to be moved from one genus to another. But what about that specific name, sandwichensis? After all, the bird is not found in Hawaii (aka the Sandwich Islands) – or near Sandwich, England, hence the name sandwich tern.

It turns out that before Alexander Wilson named the species in 1811, it had already been described to science by the German biologist JF Gmelin as Emberiza sandwichensis in 1789. Gmelin’s description was a second-hand account of specimens collected at a place then called “Sandwich Sound” in Alaska. Wilson did not notice that his specimens from Georgia matched the description of the bird from Alaska. According to the rules of scientific nomenclature, Gmelin’s name for the species takes precedence. But in English, we always use the name proposed by Wilson.

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


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