Sparrows are a mystery to most non-birders (and many birders too!) and it’s not hard to see why. The great majority of them are small, brown streaky birds that at this time of year are usually just glimpsed as they disappear into a tangle of undergrowth, so much so that sparrow sightings often get lumped into the catch-all category of ‘Little Brown Bird’ (hastily scribbled as ‘LBB’ in field notebooks from here to Alaska).
This is a great pity as sparrows are an under-appreciated group of birds in my opinion, and Delaware is awash with them during the winter because several species that breed as far away as northern Canada flood into our area and flock together with our resident sparrows. Tangled brush piles and weedy fields might not be attractive to an average human but they are very popular with sparrows who love to scuffle through them in search of seed as well as take cover in them if a hawk appears. On a good winter’s morning you might see more than half a dozen species of sparrow just by slowly walking along the edges of these brush piles and fields and waiting for them to appear.
A simple first step to identifying sparrows is to look at their breast as this lets you place them into one of two broad categories: those with streaked breasts and those with unstreaked breasts. The collage below is composed of sparrows banded during DNS’s Bird Conservation Program and up close you can see the differences between species in breast patterning, as well as the eyebrow stripes, moustaches and thin crown stripe found in many sparrows.
The collage below shows the diversity of sizes, shapes and colors seen in sparrows’ beaks. For example, the beak of Song Sparrows is intermediate in length and depth while Fox Sparrows have a short but stout beak and both Lincoln’s and Swamp Sparrows have long, thin beaks. Some sparrows have all-brown beaks while others have beaks that are gray (White-throated), orange (Field), pink (Junco) or jet black (Chipping Sparrow during the breeding season). The American Tree Sparrow has the most distinctive beak of all, being dark brown above but yellow below. There is also quite a lot of variation in the angle of the forehead, the size of the eye, and the curvature of the upper beak.
Hopefully these photographs have convinced you that sparrows are more different and beautiful than you had thought. My advice is to slowly explore the undergrowth on a crisp, still winter’s morning and try to get a good look at every species you see. Rest assured, you will be rewarded!