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Learn to differentiate finches and sparrows

finches and sparrows
LOOK CLOSER: To determine whether you’re viewing a female House Finch (top) or a Song Sparrow (bottom), consider differences in plumage colors, leg colors, and behaviors, such as how high the bird perches or its flight style. Art by David Allen Sibley

Birders often struggle to distinguish the streaky brown birds, lumping them together with nicknames like “LBJs” (for “Little Brown Jobs”). It is truly challenging to sort out the many species and variations of birds that are small, brownish, and streaked. As always, one of the best strategies for understanding the variability and reaching an identification is to recognize broader groups of species.

Two of the most prominent groups of streaky brown birds are the sparrows and the finches. Both have conical bills for eating seeds and are mainly small and brownish with a streaked pattern. They are classified as two different families, which are not very closely related, and the fundamental differences between them can be obvious once you know what to look for.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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