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Here’s a secret for fall birding in the east: Sparrows aren’t particularly difficult. Don’t focus on details of plumage and they sort themselves out pretty easily.
Before going into details, I will say that my experience is almost entirely on the east coast and that western birds may pose more challenges, but this advice should be fairly useful to everyone. I’ll also say that a lot of this essay is based on the Sparrows: The Generic Approach chapter of Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding.
So how do you go about breezing through a flock of sparrows? You focus on the shape and general color pattern. Yes, the same holistic approach that’s so big with hawks and shorebirds now. Chances are 90% will sort out easily, leaving just a few to focus more carefully on.
Start with Song Sparrows obviously. Not only are they the most common, almost year-round, but they also are somewhat intermediate in shape, so you can easily compare them to almost every other sparrow. There’s probably one within 5 minutes of you right this second, so as long as it’s light out, take a 15 minute walk and study one.
Ok, so what did you notice? Overall it was reddish or brownish, with a round head, relatively typical body, and long rounded tail. Lots of somewhat thick streaks, a big eyestripe, and some other markings.
Now go find a Savannah Sparrow, which is fairly similar in markings. But it’s also much trimmer, slightly flatter on top of the head, and more of a yellowish-brown. With those observations, they’re two very different birds. Most other sparrows are similarly distinct when you consider more than just plumage. Let’s try to describe some.
- Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrows are small and appropriately tightly proportioned. In summer, the bright chestnut cap makes them obvious. In fall, they show a moderately patterned face and when flying a gray rump. They outnumber any similar-shaped bird by several orders of magnitude, so they’re pretty easy.
- Clay-colored Sparrow
Clay-colored Sparrows are basically the same as Chipping Sparrows. They’re much, much rarer. I’ve only seen a few, but they did stick out with a much stronger face pattern. Stronger lines along the cheeks and pale between the eye and bill creates a reasonably different impression. Then get the bird to fly and look for the brown rump, which doesn’t contrast with the rest of the backside like a Chipping Sparrow does.
- Field Sparrow
Field Sparrows are quite distinct. Pretty much shaped like a Chipping, but the face is utterly blank. The bill is pink and the head in general seems to have a pinkish cast. Nothing is really similar, Grasshopper Sparrows can be similarly blank-faced but have huge heads.
- American Tree Sparrow
Slightly bigger than a Chipping but fairly similar. They stick around in winter in Massachusetts and outnumber the smaller sparrows in in late fall into early spring. The bicolored bill (black on top, yellow below) is a good mark, as is the black spot on the breast. The head is fairly plain with an obvious cap.
- Brewer’s Sparrow
An exceptional vagrant that I haven’t seen. Check every Clay-colored, but probably outnumbered by them by at least the same amount that Clay-colored is outnumbered by Chipping.
- Vesper Sparrow
This one gives me trouble. I think it’s because the Peterson illustration was of a totally plain bird, when they’re actually much more like a Savannah Sparrow from the side. The white outer tail sticks out, as does the eyering and less of an eyebrow.
- Lark Sparrow
I keep missing these in the east, but they’re very distinct from my memories in Arizona. On the large size, with a very different facial pattern. You won’t overlook one.
- Lark Bunting
Another vagrant I don’t have any experience with, but they don’t appear to be similar to any other sparrow. The white in the wings looks like it’s obvious.
- Savannah Sparrow
Already talked about. A trimmer, paler Song Sparrow with a short tail.
- Grasshopper Sparrow
Plain-faced and large-headed. An obvious eye-ring and a very flat head.
- Henslow’s Sparrow
Very rare, but a greener Grasshopper with an even larger head.
- Le Conte’s Sparrow
Another rarity. Yellow-orange on the face, with a fairly flat head. You’ll need a good look to eliminate Sharp-tailed.
- Sharp-tailed Sparrows
I’m considering these two together. Orange-faced, with a huge bill. Not easy to separate the two however. If you’re not in a salt marsh, it’s almost certainly a Nelson’s, but good luck on the coast.
- Seaside Sparrow
Another one I don’t have a lot of experience with, but another one with a huge bill. Unlike Sharp-tails, Seaside is very dark overall. Quite distinct.
- Fox Sparrow
Large and red in the east. Take a Song Sparrow, make it bigger, make the streaks more heavy, and add red and turn down the brown and you have a Fox Sparrow.
- Song Sparrow
Already discussed and the basic reference sparrow. On the large side, fairly rounded, with a long, rounded tail. Fairly dark, with heavy streaking on the belly and face.
- Lincoln’s Sparrow
A tighter Song Sparrow. Slightly trimmer, with flatter angles. Overall less patterned, both in heaviness and in amount. Combination of gray head and buffy throat and upper breast give it a fairly distinct appearance.
- Swamp Sparrow
Somewhat like the cross of a Song and White-throated Sparrows (depending on angle, can easily look much more like a White-throat than anything else). Brighter back than a Song with a grayer head. No streaking on the front.
- White-throated Sparrow
Big and bulky with an obvious facial pattern. Almost as good a reference as Song Sparrow.
- Harris’s Sparrow
Another one I don’t have experience with, but cross a White-throat with a House Sparrow and you’re probably reasonably close.
- White-crowned Sparrow
Very flat backed. Shape is quite unique, almost more so than the head pattern. Crown very pointed.
- Golden-crowned Sparrow
I don’t remember much about the one I’ve seen, but fairly similar to White-throat in shape with a different head pattern.
- Dark-eyed Junco