Identify Your Native Sparrows

Enjoy sparrows in your backyard.

When most people think about sparrows, the first one that comes to mind is the ever-present House Sparrow. These are the little guys you see in every McDonald’s parking lot, picking at stray French fries, nesting under supermarket signs, invading bluebird and martin houses and pretty much being a little pest. These birds were introduced into the U.S. in the middle 1800’s and have become invasive to say the least. House Sparrows belong to a group of birds called Old World Sparrows, which are native to Eurasia and Africa.

But what about the Native Sparrows of North America? Maybe it’s time they got a little attention. New World, or American, Sparrows are a large group of small, brown or grayish perching birds. They range in size from 4½ inches to 8 inches. Some can be found along roadsides, in grassy clearings and open woods, while others require more specialized habitats, such as wetlands or along the seacoast. Sparrows are seed eaters and are invaluable in helping to control weed seeds, but they also eat insects, insect eggs and the buds of trees, as well as some foliage and fruit. Sparrows are sometimes overlooked. Maybe because they’re so common, but maybe it’s because they can be difficult to tell apart.

Which sparrows are the most common? Two sparrows almost everyone will find in their yards or on a walk through the park are the Song Sparrow, featured in the image below, and the Chipping Sparrow, featured above. Neither is especially difficult to identify if you know what you are looking for.

Meet the Song Sparrow

If you see a small, brown sparrow with a streaky breast, you can almost assume it’s a Song Sparrow! They’re one of our most commonly seen sparrows. Although their color patterns vary across the U.S., you’ll be looking at a gray and rusty colored bird. Look closer and you’ll notice streaks on the breast and sides, sometimes with a dark, central spot. You’ll often see a brownish eye-stripe, a gray cheek and a long, rounded tail.

Song Sparrows are found in brushy areas, especially in places where there is water nearby. And it’s likely that you’ll see them in your backyard, eating grass and weed seeds or scratching under your bird feeders. They eat insects, fruit, berries and seeds. If you’d like to feed these little birds, sprinkle seed mix on the ground or offer it in a ground feeder. A good mix for these birds would be Very Berry Blend or Four Seasons No-Waste Seed Blend. And of course, they’d love mealworms — either live or roasted.

Another view of the Song Sparrow's intricate brown and white streaked markings.

The Song Sparrow.

Like their coloration, the Song Sparrow’s song varies with the part of the country they’re found in. But chances are you’ve heard some variation of the Song Sparrow’s lovely voice. Listen to the Song Sparrow’s lovely song.

Like all our native sparrows, the female Song Sparrows build an open-cupped nest. It’s often on the ground, but sometimes they’ll build higher up in trees. It’s a sturdily built nest, made of weeds and grasses with bark on the outside and lined with more grasses and animal hair. Usually only one clutch of 1 – 6 eggs is laid per season. You can encourage these birds to nest in your yard by offering nesting materials such as cotton or aspen fibers.

Meet the Chipping Sparrow

The first thing you’ll notice about the Chipping Sparrow is his bright, rusty colored cap. Second, notice the white eyebrow and then the black eye stripe running from his beak to the back of his head. There are no streaks on the clear, light colored chest and sides. He has a longish tail and his beak is a bit smaller for his size than other sparrows. And you might notice the two white bars on each wing.

You’ll find Chipping Sparrows along roadsides, in parks and in your backyard. If you have feeders, you may see him there, scratching and searching for stray black oil sunflower seeds. And if you’d like to offer these little birds a special seed treat, try a ground feeder filled with a mix of millet seed and finely cracked corn. Four Seasons No-Waste Seed Blend is ideal for these birds and also will attract other ground feeding birds such as juncos, towhees and doves. And mealworms would be a big hit, too—either roasted or live.

Chipping Sparrows have a perky, chirping voice and are often heard rather than seen. Have you heard this bird before? Listen to the Chipping Sparrow’s song.

Female Chipping Sparrows build a loose, open cupped nest in low shrubs, usually 3 – 5 feet off the ground. The nest is made of rootlets and lined with animal hair. It’s so flimsy you can see through it! She lays anywhere from 2 – 7 pale blue or white eggs, slight spotted or streaked with black, brown or purple. You can encourage Chipping Sparrows to nest in your yard by providing shrubbery and also nesting materials such as cotton or aspen fibers.

So, the next time you see a little brown sparrow hopping on your lawn or scratching under your bird feeders, don’t just look away and think you’ll never be able to identify it. Take a closer look–it’s a look worth taking! Happy Birding! What kind of sparrows have you seen lately? Have you seen the Song or Chipping Sparrow, or both? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  • Geraldine Anderson April 5, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    How do I deal with the VERY invasive English Sparrows who are taking over my bluebird houses? They were so numerous on my feeders this winter that I did not have my usual cardinals and grosbeaks. I think I saw only two all winter. I am only feeding black oiled sunflower seeds and safflower seeds but the house sparrows still swarm mu feeder.
    HELP please.

  • R. Brune April 6, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Hi Geraldine,

    I would say the definitive source for dealing with these sparrows would be NABS, the North American Bluebird Society. They have a lot of advice on their webpage. There are too many suggestions to list here, but trapping is one option they talk about. Also on our Attracting Bluebirds article, there is some discussion about sparrows that may be helpful…