Identifying sparrows: You can do this!
(published 3-18-09)

There will always be certain families of birds that challenge our identification skills more than others. For some it's the warblers, those colorful migrants that tantalize us every spring and then pass through again in the fall, traveling in disguise. I have this image of the males packing away their mating season finery in little trunks, somewhere up in Canada, and then starting their journey south.

But warblers are easy to ID compared with other groups. Some gull species have the annoying habit of assuming different looks during their first three years of life. And the field marks we rely on to tell gulls apart can be subtle at best. Ditto for shorebirds. Trying to sort out the various “peeps” on a busy mudflat or beach is a headache waiting to happen.

Some people think of sparrows as being hard to manage as well. I disagree. True, they all tend to be brownish. Some are even drab. But as with most birds, if you look at sparrows closely you will be rewarded. You'll see the markings that distinguish them, and you will notice a subtle beauty that few take the time to appreciate.

Many sparrow species are quite easy to observe. Most prefer the ground, not the tops of trees. They are less hyperactive than warblers. And, because a big part of their diet is seeds, they like to hang around feeders. Of the 20 or so sparrow species you could expect to see in DuPage County, more than half are potential visitors to your backyard. That includes juncos and towhees, which are sparrows too.

Before going on, let's dispose of House Sparrows. No, not literally, though most of us wish we could. If your backyard is anything like mine, House Sparrows are a pest. There are simply too many of these gluttonous birds, which are actually members of the finch family, imported here from England in the 1850s.

It's the true sparrows that deserve our attention. Most of them are noticeably smaller than House Sparrows, with finer features and markings. They are generally seasonal visitors as well.

Just as robins can be found here in winter, so can several kinds of sparrows. Sightings of Song, Fox or White-Throated Sparrows are not uncommon when the snow flies. This winter, in fact, I occasionally spotted one or two White-Throateds under my feeders. Another species, American Tree Sparrow, only visits this region from late fall through March. To them, Chicagoland is a winter hot spot! They spend the rest of their time on the Arctic tundra.

But now, in March, is when the sparrow activity really starts to pick up. Song Sparrows arrive on the scene first, followed in April by Fox, Chipping, White-Throated and White-Crowned. Watch for them under your feeders and bushes, and try tossing a some millet seed on the ground or patio to help attract them. The Song and Chipping Sparrows will stay with us all summer, while other species head north to their breeding grounds.

This spring, make a point to watch a male White-Throated Sparrow with its bold black and white striped crown and bright yellow spots between the eye and bill. It's a beautiful bird (especially from the neck up) that's easy to observe and deserves a closer look. Seeing one and hearing its sweet song has been known to change a beginning birder's opinion about sparrows!

A few sparrow species, Lincoln's and Field, have visited my yard only once or twice, and I treasure those rare sightings. The finely marked Lincoln's sparrow can be difficult to find anywhere. Field sparrows, on the other hand, are quite common in their usual habitat. (Guess what? They like fields!)

Several local sparrow species require vast grasslands to thrive and for that reason their local populations have been declining. Fortunately, intense restoration efforts at places like Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve in Naperville are paying dividends.

Springbrook is probably the best local spot to find Henslow's and Grasshopper Sparrows. These are secretive birds, however, so it's a big help to study their songs and call notes before starting your search. If you're new at this, a good strategy is to join other birders on a field trip that focuses on grassland species. Visit for a schedule of upcoming trips conducted by the DuPage Birding Club.

It was a Springbrook field trip, in fact, that led me to my first and only Nelson's Sharp-Tailed Sparrow. Now that was a secretive bird! At least Henslow's and Grasshopper will occasionally perch on a weedy stalk or fencepost. Not the Nelson's. It took several hours to finally catch a satisfying glimpse as the bird moved mouselike in the grasses along the edge of a pond. But what a little beauty with its orange face and breast—definitely worth the effort.

I haven't seen all the species that naturally occur in this region. That's okay—it gives me some birds to look forward to. Two of them are sparrows, Vesper and LeConte's. I'll track them down one of these days. Then, just maybe, I'll take on the challenge of those gulls and shorebirds. For birders, there is always something new to learn.

Copyright 2009 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.