By Dan Reinking
Sparrows as a group are often considered difficult to identify by beginning birders, and at times even by more experienced birders. This month we'll discuss several of the fairly common, widespread, "streaky" sparrows that may be seen across much of the U.S. during winter and/or in migration. Five of these species, which all share some degree of streaking on their breasts, include Fox, Lincoln's, Song, Savannah, and Vesper sparrows.
As is so often the case when learning to identify birds, looking at the habitat a bird is in may prove almost as helpful as looking at the bird itself. For example, of the five species mentioned above, two are generally found in open habitats, such as grasslands, pastures, farm fields and the like. These two species, the Savannah and Vesper sparrows, would not be likely to be found deep in the woods. A streaked sparrow seen in winter in a open field would probably be one of these two, and with a good look the two are easily separated. Vesper Sparrows have a fairly distinctive white eye ring, but no obvious line above the eye. They also show distinctly white outer tail feathers in flight, forming a tail pattern similar to that of the Dark-eyed Junco. Savannah Sparrows are highly variable, with a number of subspecies varying geographically, but most individuals show a yellowish eyeline. Savannah's lack the pronounced white eye ring and white outer tail feathers of the Vesper Sparrow.
Moving on to other habitats, including woodlands or brushy thickets, we must consider Fox, Lincoln's and Song sparrows to be more likely than Savannah or Vesper sparrows. Of these, the Fox Sparrow is generally the largest and the Lincoln's the smallest, although some subspecies of Song Sparrow may overlap in size with either of the other two species. Fox sparrows are variable by subspecies, with west coast birds generally appearing dark, chocolate brown, while interior western birds have gray upperparts and reddish wings, and eastern birds appear quite reddish. All races appear somewhat stocky, with fairly heavy spotting or streaking on the breast, usually most dense in the center. Fox Sparrows are plain-faced birds, lacking the pronounced eyeline and crown stripes of Lincoln's and Song sparrows. As a useful behavioral clue for identifying this species, Fox Sparrows are often seen scratching in the forest litter with their feet, something the other common, streaked sparrows rarely if ever do.
The widespread Song Sparrow has even more subspecies than the Fox Sparrow and is highly variable in size and in plumage, which ranges from dark brown to fairly bright rufous overall. The tail is fairly long for a sparrow, and rounded on the end. The head is boldly marked with a gray eyeline and a broad, dark stripe from the bill downward on either side of the throat. The breast is coarsely streaked with blackish to reddish streaks, which often converge into a central breast spot. The call note is very distinctive, and can readily be learned with some practice.
The Lincoln's Sparrow may at first appear similar to the Song Sparrow, both in life and in field guides, but closer inspection reveals several key differences. Lincoln's Sparrows have somewhat shorter tails, and a more delicate overall appearance due in part to their smaller size and in part to the narrower, crisp, black streaking on their breast. This streaking does not generally form a bold central spot, and is much finer compared to the broad, heavy streaking on the breast of Song Sparrows. The breast of the Lincoln's Sparrow has a pale tan or yellowish wash as a background for the fine breast streaking. As a final clue for identifying this species, Roger Tory Peterson provided a concise behavioral description when he penned the phrase "a skulker, afraid of its shadow" to describe this species.
All five of these streaked sparrow species can be seen virtually coast to coast during at least part of the year, particularly during winter and migration across most of the U.S. Grab your binoculars and a good field guide, and spend a some time searching the woods and fields. With a little effort you will soon be naming these sparrows like a pro.
For additional reading:
Kaufman, K. 2000. Birds of North America. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
National Geographic Society. Various editions. Field Guide to the Birds of North America. National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
Peterson, R. T. Various editions. A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Rising, J. D. 1996. A Guide to the Identification and Natural History of the Sparrows of the United States and Canada. Academic Press, San Diego, California.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. National Audubon Society Sibley Guide to Birds. Chanticleer Press, New York.
Dan Reinking grew up birding in northwest Iowa after a December visit by his uncle, an active birder, left him with a passion for birds. He has since turned bird study into an occupation, having conducted or participated in research in South Dakota, Minnesota, California, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Venezuela. Employed with the George M. Sutton Avian Research Center in Oklahoma since 1992, he recently coordinated the Oklahoma Breeding Bird Atlas Project. He is also a member of the Oklahoma Bird Records Committee and president of the Oklahoma Ornithological Society.