Sparrows are scary. At least that’s their reputation. People new to birding, or even not so new, often see sparrows as sneaky and streaky, hard to see and hard to identify. But these fascinating birds become easier to recognize when you break them down by season and groups.
Dividing sparrows into groups is particularly helpful. Some types are solitary and elusive, hiding under dense cover all the time. Others are more social and herds may congregate in open habitats where they are easier to see. Looking at the scientific names in your field guide is a good way to start separating these groups; the first part of the name, the genus, gives you an idea of closely related species.
The fly in this ointment is the fact that many sparrows have been moved to different genera (plural of genus) in recent years. The Hudsonian Sparrow is a good example. For many years, its scientific name was Tree Spizella. Recently it was moved into a genre of its own, and now it is Spizelloides arborea. But it still has many traits in common with the genre Spizelle, it is therefore a good starting point.
sparrows of the genus Spizella, like the Chipping Sparrow and Field Sparrow, generally live in semi-open habitats – not in the middle of dense forest, not in wide-open grassy meadows. They are not as shy and elusive as many sparrows, often roosting in the open. Sociable outside the breeding season, they gather in small groups and have light, thin callnotes. All of these points also apply to the American Tree Sparrow.
One of the most distinctive characteristics of the American Tree Sparrow is its northern distribution. It breeds and winters farther north, on average, than any other native sparrow. (The Savannah Sparrow actually goes farther north in summer, but this adaptable bird also nests as far south as Mexico.) Contrary to what the Tree Sparrow’s name might suggest, most of its breeding range is located north of the treeline in the arctic tundra. In winter, it is most numerous in the northern and southern states of Canada, and it is a rare visitor in the southernmost states.
For most of us, American sparrows are winter birds. They migrate late in the fall and early in the spring. In southern Canada they are rare before November, and in some parts of the winter range they do not reach full numbers until December.
When they come to bird feeders in rural areas or open suburbs we may study their markings, but elsewhere we often recognize them by general impressions. A small flock flies along the edge of a swamp, woodlot or field, all the birds appearing pale and with long tails. Watching them from afar, we’ll see them feeding in open ground or perching on tall weed stalks, making soft, musical calls. The identification is already clear and their markings – as detailed in the captions for this column – are just icing on the cake.
What to look for
The size and the shape. A slender, medium-sized sparrow with a relatively long tail.
Habitat and behavior. Found in open country in winter: fields, roadsides, edges of marshes or woods. Forages on the ground or in standing weeds, usually in groups, sometimes with juncos.
Head pattern. Reddish-brown crown and line behind the eye, against the pale gray head.
Beak color. Bicoloured, with black upper mandible and yellow lower mandible.
Below. Solid pale grey, usually with a dark central patch on the chest.
Upper parts. Back striped with reddish brown, gray and black. Two prominent white wingbars.
Chipping Sparrow, adult winter, December in Socorro County, New Mexico. Photo by Brian E. Small
Superficially at least, the bird that most closely resembles the American Tree Sparrow is the Chipping Sparrow. Many people in northern states and southern Canada get both species at their feeders, but not at the same time: chips in summer, trees in winter. But the overlaps and gaps mean they can’t be identified by timing alone. Chipping sparrows are a bit smaller and have shorter tails. Their beak is black in summer, a mixture of pink and black in winter, but not perfectly two-tone black and yellow. Their dark eye line is narrow, black, and just as sharply defined in front of the eye as behind it, giving the face a different appearance from that of the Tree Sparrow.
Field Sparrow, adult, May in Ogemaw County, Michigan. Photo by Brian E. Small
In some ways, Field Sparrow is very reminiscent of American Tree Sparrow. It has the same long tail and general pattern of reddish-brown crown and eyeline on a pale gray head. Its facial expression is different, however: the Field Sparrow has an incredibly white and innocent face, as if it has never had a bad thought in its life. This appearance is created by the completely unmarked lores, between the eye and the beak (where the Tree Sparrow has at least some dark markings), and the whitish eyering, which is often quite conspicuous. The pink beak helps complete the innocent look. The Field Sparrow also lacks the dark chest patch of the American Tree Sparrow.
American Tree Sparrow, adult, June on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska. Photo by Brian E. Small
In winter we often see American Sparrows in groups of around half a dozen or up to 15 or 20, but larger flocks can gather in areas where the species is common. They often associate with Dark-eyed Juncos, but they are usually not with other sparrows. In open, weedy habitats along forest edges or roadsides, they are usually easy to see, flying to exposed perches when disturbed; in flight, their outer tail feathers may appear pale. Their flocking habit, moderately long-tailed shape, and pale overall appearance may suggest this species even at a glance. On closer inspection, the pointed wing markings, pale gray underparts, typical head pattern, and two-tone yellow and black beak are enough to confirm the identity.
Swamp Sparrow, summer adult in June at Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Brian E. Small
For sparrow identification, it’s best to start with things like shape, behavior, and habitat, not ground markings. On this Swamp Sparrow, it may be tempting to start with its reddish crown, like that of a Tree Sparrow or a House Sparrow; but everything else is different. Swamp Sparrow is a stocky, heavy sparrow, usually solitary outside of nesting season, usually hiding in dense, low vegetation, revealing its presence with sharp, loud callnotes – in many ways it’s the opposite tree sparrow. To follow up with field markings, we might note that the Swamp Sparrow has no obvious white wingbars, and instead its wings are mostly strong and rich in reddish chestnut, enough to rule out any similar bird. .
Sing a tune
When I was a kid, my parents’ house radio sometimes played a song called “On a Wonderful Day Like Today” from a show in the 1960s. I haven’t heard it in years, but I remember a line in the lyrics. To describe how wonderful that day was, the song claimed, “Even the sparrows sing a melody.”
It caught my attention. I didn’t like musical theatre, but I liked sparrows, and I knew some sang very musical songs. I didn’t like the implication that warbling sparrows would be unusual.
Although the Song Sparrow is named for being melodious, it is not the best singer in the family. To my ear, American Tree Sparrow has one of the most beautiful songs, with clear hisses and soft chirps. Individuals vary, and each male tree sparrow sings only one song, often shared with several of its neighbours. It’s a characteristic arctic sound in summer, but males start practicing in early spring before heading north, and observant birdwatchers in temperate latitudes can catch their performance.
American sparrows are also musical in winter: feeding flocks emit a soft, clear call of two or three syllables. It is often written as teel-wit or teedle-eet, but I hear it as Marguerite – in honor of A. Marguerite Baumgartner, the scientist who first studied this species in the 1930s.