Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Common Sparrow ID tips

Sparrows can be an intimidating group for beginning birders.  They're little, they're fast, they're flighty... and they're all brown!  How can one even begin to tell them all apart?

The Great Central Valley supports an impressive array of little brown sparrows (often lumped in with wrens and finches and dismissed as "Little Brown Jobs"), but there is hope for the new birder!  Pick up a good field guide, and start narrowing your options down by season and by habitat.  For example, determine which species are likely to be in the Central Valley in the winter only.  You'll be left with a shorter list of potential species after a process of elimination.

An excellent tool is eBird's Bar Chart feature.  This allows you to select a county (or multiple counties) and displays a chart of monthly (weekly, actually) occurrences for all of the species recorded in that region.  This is an excellent way to become familiar with what species are in your area at different times of the year.

Another good tip is to learn the most common species backwards and forwards.  I suggest getting to know the English Sparrow (Passer domesticus) first - although they're not sparrows in the true sense, but rather a type of Old World sparrow introduced from Europe in the 1800's.  (Some ornithologists classify them as weaver finches, some argue otherwise.)  Turns out they like it here; they are everywhere, the ubiquitous little brown birds of cities, suburbia, and fast food parking lots. 

Once you are acquainted with English Sparrows (also called House Sparrows), you will be better equipped to distinguish between the imposters and our true native sparrows. 

Because they're so common (read: "boring"), I had never photographed an English Sparrow until today; I popped outside and found a male hiding out in a bush just outside the door.  I told you, they're basically everywhere.

English Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The first native sparrow you ought to learn is the White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), distinct with its prominent black-and-white striped head, and common enough to frequent bird feeders during the winter months.

The White-crowned was the first native sparrow I learned to identify, watching them at birdfeeders during the winter.  In the summer, they can be found in the Sierra Nevada and northern parts of the state; they remain along the Central Coast year-round.

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
The second native sparrow you might consider familiarizing yourself with is the Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), a year-round resident of Central Valley grasslands.  It can be found nearly everywhere else in California as well, except for the High Sierra and the deserts.  A good field mark to look for in the Song Sparrow is a dark central chest spot, set at what sometimes appears to be the convergence of streaks on its breast.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
As you might guess, the Song Sparrow sings a lovely song.  Visit Cornell University's All About Birds to listen to a Song Sparrow sing.

So there's your assignment: make the acquaintance of our invasive imposter "sparrow," then learn to recognize two of our most familiar and beautiful native sparrows, and you'll be well on your way to identifying more of the little brown birds you see in the field!

Once you feel comfortable with these sparrows, try your hand at a few others:
Lincoln's Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
Rufous-crowned Sparrow
Bell's Sparrow

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