Song Sparrows Have Look-Alike Relatives

Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, copyrighted photo by Dan SudiaFox Sparrow, Passerella iliaca, Copyrighted photo by Dan Sudia

Let's say you're in the field and you see the two birds shown above. Are either or both of these birds Song Sparrows?

Notice that the bird on the left has much more dark gray on the head and shoulders than the one on the right. Notice that Lefty's breast streaks are much heavier and darker than Righty's, plus Lefty's tail is bright rusty red but Righty's isn't.

Fact is, Lefty is a Fox Sparrow and Righty is our Song Sparrow. And Fox Sparrows aren't the only species that can be confused with Song Sparrows.

If you have a field guide to the birds, go to the page showing the Song Sparrow. If your guide includes all the birds of North America, you'll see that the Song Sparrow is only one of nearly thirty species of North American sparrows. Also, notice that nearly all those thirty sparrow species are plain-looking little birds, usually brown with added white or gray, and they all have short, thick beaks.

At first glance all sparrows look pretty much alike. Especially you wonder how you'll ever distinguish the Song Sparrow from the Fox Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow, and Savannah Sparrow, which all have brown-streaked chests, dark brown, streaked backs, and head markings very much like the Song Sparrow's.

Of course, this identification challenge is a big part of our fun. If all organisms were as easy to see and identify as, say, ostriches, we could never congratulate ourselves on our uncanny powers of observation!

After studying the Song-Sparrow-identification problem a while, it turns out that Song Sparrows have some very good field marks. Probably the best "field mark" for adult Song Sparrows is a fairly conspicuous brown splotch in the center of their chests, which few other sparrows have (Unfortunately, the Fox Sparrow does have one). In the Song Sparrow picture, the dark central spot isn't the two dark splotches framing the white throat below the big -- these are "whiskers," which most but not all sparrows have. The dark central spot is that diffuse gathering of dark feathers below the white throat, below and between the two whiskers. In the field and at a distance the spot actually shows up better, and when you see it you immediately think "Song Sparrow."

Another good field mark for Song Sparrows is that they "pump" their tails up and down as they fly -- almost like the handle of an old-time water pump.. If you're still unsure when you see these two important field marks, then the moment the Song Sparrow belts out its complex, easy-to- recognize song you'll know exactly what it is. This is how it is with most identifications. At first you're bewildered, but then you learn what's special about the organism.

If you become a serious naturalist eventually you'll learn the field marks of hundreds of plants an animals. Learning these field marks won't be a chore, either; it'll come naturally, without much effort, exactly in the way you learned to distinguish between Uncle Joe and Aunt Mary.

And this whole learning process will be fun!

Return to Life Cycle Index Page