Wed. Nov 29th, 2023
it's all in their heads

In today’s post, Rondeau Provincial Park Interpreter Shane Smits will guide us through identifying some of the many sparrow species found in Ontario.

For various reasons, rightly or wrongly, sparrows are often overlooked when it comes to bird watching.

For starters, they are usually abundant. Many sparrows are usually seen hopping near the forest floor or within dense cover.

But apparently the most common reason for overlooking sparrows among beginning birders (that “all sparrows look the same”) is actually a misconception.

It is true that this is something I have said on multiple occasions. Here’s why it’s wrong. Yes, all sparrows have their similarities. But after spending some time getting to know these little brown birds, their differences become more apparent.

white-throated sparrow

When identifying sparrows, there are several differences and field marks you can use, but for simplicity, I like to focus on the head.

That’s because, for me, the head is the best way to identify and differentiate many of our sparrows.

Which white is which?

Let’s start with some of the most distinguishable species: The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and the white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys).

Left: White-throated sparrow.  Right: white-crowned sparrow Left: White-throated sparrow. Right: white-crowned sparrow

These two species stand out compared to many of our other sparrows. But to the untrained eye, they could be confused with each other.

These two have some obvious similarities with their black and white striped heads. However, the white-crowned sparrow lacks the bright white throat, from which the white-throated sparrow gets its name.

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The white-crowned sparrow also lacks the yellow lores (the area in front of and above the eye) that the white-throated sparrow sports elegantly.

Some other differences are in their peaks. The White-throated Sparrow displays a dark beak while the White-crowned Sparrow’s beak is pink!

Signs of a song sparrow

Next is the song sparrow (melodious melody).

The song sparrow is one that I had difficulty identifying for a long time.

In fact, I often relied solely on the song to confirm or deny my identification. After taking some time to learn my sparrows, I haven’t needed to rely on the song for quite some time, although it is still a nice song to listen to.

song sparrow

Song sparrows are quite common and are often found in a wide variety of habitats.

They lack brightly colored markings on their heads; Instead, its cap is reddish brown with a gray stripe down the center.

Another notable field mark that I found useful in identifying these sparrows is the same reddish-brown stripe extending back from their eye.

Lastly, if the head alone is not enough to obtain a positive identification, look at the chest.

The breast of a song sparrow is striped and often shows a darker spot directly in the center.

Removing sparrow IDs

Lastly, we have the Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerine), One of my favorites.

This sparrow quickly became one of the most recognizable sparrows to me as it has features that really stand out.

sparrow sparrow

To begin with, his hat is reddish and stands out quite well.

Its face is a light gray color that offers a great contrast with the rest of its colors. On their faces, their dark beak leads to a black line that passes through their eyes.

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Additionally, they have a whitish-gray throat with few or no markings on the chest or sides.

Get to the right headspace

Through all my experiences identifying different sparrows, I can limit my top tips to these five:

  • Look around the eyes: Are there lines, rings, eyebrows, lores?
  • What does your crown look like? solid color? Stripes?
  • What color is its beak?
  • Look under his chin: Are there stains?
  • Try to learn their songs! This is one of the best ways to confirm your sighting!

Hopefully, some of these tips I’ve learned along the way will help you too!

person watching birds

If you’re a beginning birder who hasn’t yet mastered sparrow identification, go ahead, take your time, and pay close attention to these little brown birds the next time you’re out birding.

After time and practice, you too will feel like an expert and appreciate the diversity that exists among these little birds.