To get to know streaked sparrows, focus first on a few key features of the face
Published: December 22, 2011
Sparrows are brown and streaky. To beginners, they all look alike, but experienced birders can identify them at a glance. Learning to appreciate the variations and subtle beauty of sparrows might seem like a big challenge, but you can do it. Here’s how to begin.
BROWN AND STREAKY: Three similar sparrows — Lincoln’s (left), Savannah (middle), and Song (right) — look less and less alike when you compare bill color, eye-ring, eyebrow color, crown color, crown shape, and other aspects of head pattern.
Art by David Allen Sibley
Click to enlarge
First, determine whether or not the breast is streaked. In most cases, this will be obvious. Song and Savannah Sparrows, for example, have bold dark streaks, while Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows lack streaks. There are exceptions: Juveniles of nearly all sparrows have streaks in late summer, and some species that are normally plain-breasted (particularly Swamp and White-throated Sparrows) can be distinctly streaked in fall and winter. For the most part, though, it’s easy to sort sparrows into streaked and unstreaked groups.
Next, look at the face. Among the streak-breasted sparrows, three of the most widespread and most confusing are Savannah, Song, and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Experienced birders identify them by overall shape and color, and might pass along hints such as “Savannah is short-tailed and crisply streaked.” True enough, but judging this requires practice, and I’ve found that it’s more helpful for beginners to look for differences in face patterns.
As you can see from the paintings, there are fundamental similarities but also distinct differences. You can look for an eye-ring (Lincoln’s) or no eye-ring. You can look for eyebrow color — either gray (Lincoln’s and Song) or whitish to yellowish (Savannah). You can look for contrasting dark and light spots at the back of the ear coverts. (Savannah has them; the other two do not.) You can look at the lateral throat stripes — a broad dark brown triangle on Song, a thinner cluster of fine streaks on the others. Bill color also differs consistently.
In fact, almost any detail you choose differs consistently between the three species, so there are actually dozens of field marks. Pick two or three things that you will study on every sparrow you see.
You will need good views, especially at first, and a little experience will go a long way when judging what qualifies as “gray” or “obvious.”
You may make mistakes and get confused. But if you focus consistently on a few key features on the face, the variations will quickly become familiar and you will soon get to know the streaked sparrows.
David Allen Sibley is the author of The Sibley Guide to Trees, The
Sibley Guide to Birds, Sibley’s Birding Basics, and Sibley guides to
birds of eastern and western North America.
Read more by David Allen Sibley.