First of all, how do you know if what you're looking at is a Sparrow? For me the two distinguishing feature of Sparrows are their general colouration and their bill. Generally speaking Sparrows are brownish- often streaked above and they may or may not be streaked below (more about that later). They often have facial features such as lines above and below the eye, or rings around the eyes. These traits can be very useful in species identification. If you have not bothered to learn basic feather topography I would STRONGLY recommend it! Basic diagrams can be found in the beginning of most field guides but sadly most people gloss over then or ignore them completely, this is a huge mistake. If you haven't done it already, start learning feather topography today, you will be glad you did. Below is photo with some of the more important terminology for Sparrow ID. This shows you the key areas to look for when identifying sparrow. Combine this with the information that follows and you will have a solid base for identifying any sparrow you see (with use of your field guide).
|Notable features of Sparrows for ID purposes.|
Aside from have some knowledge of bird morphology it's extremely useful to know what species are expected in your general area. I'd suggest getting a copy of or a link to a checklist of the birds of your province, state etc. Knowing what to expect is half the battle- learn the common species in your area and take note of the habitat you find them in. Using those clues and the techniques outlined in this article and you will know when you see something different!
In Newfoundland there are about 6-8 common species of Sparrow, depending on where you live (that includes Dark-eyed Junco, which I won't cover because it's different enough that it shouldn't present much of a challenge) they are:
- Savannah Sparrow - medium streaking- central spot
- Swamp Sparrow - can have blurry, smudged streaking, especially in fall
- Lincoln's Sparrow - thin streaking on buffy background
- Song Sparrow- thick streaking on white background
- Fox Sparrow- thick streaking on white background
- White-throated Sparrow- no streaking
- White-crowned Sparrow - no streaking
- American Tree Sparrow- no streaking, but has a central breast spot
I always recommend using a structured approach to identifying birds. Basically, you should always have a means of systematically eliminating certain species based on shared characteristics. For Sparrows the most important characteristics are streaking and presence of a central breast spot, crown colour and facial pattern. It is in using these characteristics that your knowledge of bird morphology and feather topography will pay off. Also, always be aware of the environment you're birding in. Good birders are always aware of the surrounding habitat and have a good idea of the species expected. This helps to narrow the list of possibilities. If you are in a grassy open area and a Sparrow flushes, is this more likely to be a Fox Sparrow or a Savannah Sparrow? The vast majority of the time you will not see a Fox Sparrow in that type of habitat, but during Spring and Fall migration, it's certainly possible, so that's something else to be aware of. The habitat are and time of year are critical indicators of which species are possible in a given area.
One of the first things you should be noting when you see a Sparrow is, does it have a streaked breast. If, so is the streaking, blotchy and dense, fine and sparse and is there a central breast spot. Sparrows can generally be separated into two camps, those with streaking and those without. Drilling down further, if streaking is present, is there a central spot. Below are some example of various types of streaking present in Sparrows. Go ahead and see if you can remember some of the other useful feather groups that we mentioned above as well :)
** streaking- thick, thin, extent, does it terminate and the background colour
** is there a central breast spot
|This species is often confused with the species below- note the similarities and the differences. Can you separate them?|
|Also a rare species in NL. Using the same process as above see if you can identify it|
A couple of the above species are rare in Newfoundland, but they were used just to highlight the different types of streaking possible in Sparrows.
Aside from the amount and type of streaking on the other side, the next most important area to focus on is the face and head. Many Sparrows have complex facial patterns. At first it will seem difficult to pick up the different feather groups of the face in the field, but this gets easier over time and with practice. I'd suggest looking at the photos below and try to discern the various facial features we noted above. I'll end with dome head shots of various species. Note the important feather groups in each on, can you find and identify the supercillium, lore, eye ring, eye line, malar, crown stripe and auriculars/ear coverts (note this was not highlighted in the above diagram).
|This species highlights all the facial features pretty well. I left out auriculars from the diagrams above but can you find them. Note in Sparrows they are usually confined by the eye line and the malar.|
|Bit of a tricky one. A rarity in Newfoundland. I will touch on this entire group in a later blog. For now note the important features- can you identify it?|
Hopefully you found this article useful. It was meant as an introduction to Sparrow ID and the primary goal was to introduce you to the basics of Sparrow ID and to give you the tools you need to identify these birds. In later articles I will delve deeper into the identification of various species, i.e. Separation of fall plumaged Chipping Sparrow vs fall plumaged Clay-coloured Sparrow. However, without a solid base in the topics discussed in this article that article would not be useful to many readers.
If you like this approach to bird identification and are seeking to improve your own ID skills, I'll strongly recommend you considering a personal tutoring session with me- either online or in person to discuss areas that you struggle with. Alternately, I host a number of identification workshops throughout the year, both live and online in webinar format.
Look out for my next article which will see me discuss a tricky juvenile woodpecker plumage that is not well known and through me for a loop! Links to info for tutoring sessions and my workshops series is below. If you are interested in the webinar format of any workshop contact me and I will discuss that with you. Until next time!
Personal Tutoring - https://www.birdingnewfoundland.com/tutoring-sessions
Id Workshops- https://www.birdingnewfoundland.com/ (select ID workshops for the list)