I always think of October as the sparrow month. Most warblers and other flashy songbirds migrate south in September, leaving October to the more subtle sparrows. And by “more subtle” I mean “brown and all looking the same.”
Sparrows are a challenging bunch of birds to identify. They’re challenging even to categorize. What we call “sparrows” in the United States are species in the family Emberizidae, which includes more than 300 species worldwide, each of which use cone-shaped bills to eat seeds. In Europe, many of these emberizids are called “buntings,” though only some of the birds we call buntings—such as the Snow Bunting—are emberizids. Meanwhile, our buntings—such as the Lazuli Bunting—are in another family, Cardinalidae. Likewise, we have other emberizids that we don’t call sparrows, including towhees, juncos, and longspurs. What’s more, one of our most familiar sparrows—the House Sparrow—isn’t in family Emberizidae at all. It’s in a not-really-even-that-related family called Passeridae.
Get all that? Good. Now forget it. We’re not here to worry about the larger taxonomic questions. We’re going to focus on the 30 or so American birds that we call sparrows. And we’re going to start with every birder’s best friend, the Song Sparrow.
Song Sparrows are the best place to start with identifying sparrows because they embody all the general traits of sparrows but in a more birder-friendly package. They’re brownish and muddled, like most of our sparrows, but they’ve also got some straightforward identification marks to work with. They’re sort of skulky, like many sparrows, which have a habit of staying out of sight in tall grass or bushes, but Songs also frequently sit right out in the open for all to see. Plus, Song Sparrows can be found in every U.S. state at some point during the year (except Hawaii), so most all birders will have a chance to find one. Seriously, their eBird chart is so big and purple it looks like Barney the Dinosaur.
Since we know they’re probably around, let’s figure out first where to find Song Sparrows. There isn’t really one specific place to look. Song Sparrows live in a variety of different habitats, but they are most commonly found near the ground in bushes or shrubs, and often near fresh water. But, in general, they’re all over the place, from the city park downtown to a national park wilderness, so just keep an eye out.
The impression of a Song Sparrow is “generally brown colored,” though they’re actually pretty richly patterned in gray, russet, and deep chocolate. The face has lovely stripes radiating from the bill: a strong brown line through the eye, a brown crown, and thick, parallel brown stripes framing a white stripe down along the throat. It’s a pretty presentation overall, but what you want to look at first is the chest. Song Sparrows have thick messy brown stripes running down the top and sides of their whitish breast, with a big fat brown spot in the middle. That spot and those big fat stripes are always your best field marks.
That said, you will probably hear Song Sparrows before you see them, so learning to identify them by ear is important. Their song, as their name implies, is one of the loveliest and most memorable of all our common birds. It might take some practice—here, listen to some songs on the Audubon Field Guide page—but you’ll get it. It’s tricky, I think, because it’s variable. There are four songs listed on the Audubon page, but it seems like each individual bird has its own twist. The key is to listen for the two or three short introductory notes followed by the jumble of faster notes, trills, and whistles. Listen for that pattern of short and fast and you’ll soon be able to recognize the song—and probably start hearing it everywhere.
Once you’ve got the song down, you’ll be able to use it as a reference point to separate Songs from other sparrows no matter where you go.
Along with the song, the markings on the Song Sparrow are also useful as a reference for other species of sparrow. That little brown bird that looks like a Song Sparrow but the breast spot is smaller and the streaks are finer and stop abruptly? Well, that might be a Lincoln’s Sparrow. Are the streaks finer and there’s some yellow over the eye? Check out the Savannah Sparrow. Small breast spot but no streaks? Might be a Swamp Sparrow. Red all over and stuck in the sidewalk? I think you’re looking at a fire hydrant.
Plato might say that Song Sparrows are the ideal sparrow, the sparrow by which the sparrowness of all other sparrows is determined. And who am I to argue with that? They’re cute, they’re nearby, and they open the door into the wonderful world of tiny, brown birds that don’t ever let you get a good look at them. At least they’re more interesting than fire hydrants.