Learn to tell the difference between finches and sparrows

finches and sparrows

Birders often struggle to tell brown-streaked birds apart, grouping them with nicknames like “LBJ” (for “Little Brown Jobs”). It is really difficult to sort out the many species and variations of birds that are small, brownish and streaky. As always, one of the best strategies for understanding variability and achieving identification is to recognize larger groups of species.

Two of the largest groups of brown streaked birds are sparrows and finches. Both have conical beaks for eating seeds and are mostly small and brownish with a ridged pattern. They are categorized into two different families, which are not very closely related, and the basic differences between them can be obvious once you know what to look for.

(Note: The familiar house sparrow is a Eurasian species, unrelated to native North American sparrows like the song sparrow. It differs from them and finches in many ways.)

* Finches tend to roost higher, on top of weeds, shrubs or trees; sparrows tend to be on the ground or in low grass or shrubs. Related to this, finches tend to perch more upright with their tails angled downward, while sparrows often hold their tails horizontal or raised.

* Finches have shorter legs than sparrows and their legs are often dark gray; sparrows have longer legs, which are often pale pink.


* Finches are simpler, less patterned; sparrows have more varied and intricate patterns. Comparing the two species shown here, for example, the finch has a subtle face pattern with little variation in grayish color, while the sparrow has a boldly marked face in varying colors: brown, gray and whitish. The chaffinch has a greyish back with indistinct darker lines; the back of the sparrow has a bold and intricate pattern of three colors: black, brown and gray.

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* There are also big differences in flight behavior. Finches are comfortable in the sky, often flying long distances above the treetops, while sparrows generally fly lower and disappear in dense cover.

These are generalizations, but they apply to most finches and sparrows. Looking beyond the details that distinguish individual species to see broader traits like these can be very helpful in sorting through and quickly understanding two groups of species.


This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

A dozen photos of sparrows