Sorting out the sparrows is a perennial challenge, and while there are plenty of helpful resources available, one species — House Sparrow — often goes unmentioned.
Native to Eurasia, the species is naturalized and common around human settlements worldwide thanks to an adaptation about 11,000 years ago that allowed it to digest the complex carbohydrates in grains grown by humans. House Sparrows essentially evolved along with human agriculture.
The species is not closely related to the native sparrows of North America. Our sparrows were named by early naturalists because of their superficial similarity to the sparrows of Britain, but they are now classified in a separate family (New World Sparrows) and show many fundamental differences from the Old World Sparrows like House Sparrow.
House Sparrow is most common in urban settings or around farms with livestock. It tends to gather in relatively tight flocks, and it generally doesn’t mix with other sparrows. But when you learn how to distinguish House Sparrow quickly, it will help a lot in your quest to identify other sparrows.
One of the biggest differences is in overall posture and shape. House Sparrow looks relatively stocky and has a short neck, legs, and tail, and it typically crouches and moves more slowly. In comparison, the New World Sparrows are slenderer and more elongated, with more active and agile movements, often flicking their wings or tail.
The underside of House Sparrow is never streaked, so if you see the absence of streaks, that rules out a lot of New World Sparrows. And its color overall is relatively drab and dingy. Native species like White-crowned Sparrow have more colorful patterns and sharper contrasts. For example, compare the tertials (the feathers at the top of the folded wing). On House Sparrow, the tertials are drab with a simple pattern of paler brownish edges; on White-crowned Sparrow, the same feathers have a brighter and more complex pattern of black, buff, and white.
Voice is also very different. House Sparrow makes a variety of relatively low, husky chirping and chattering sounds, while the New World Sparrows produce high sharp chip notes and a variety of whistled or trilled songs.
There are many other differences in details of shape, color, pattern, structure, and behavior. Study these illustrations to find more variations in appearance and look for them the next time you see some sparrows.
This article was first published in the January/February 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.