When discussing types of sparrows, the typical house sparrow in our backyards usually comes to mind. However, this bird family consists of diverse sub-species, each with unique characteristics and adapted to various habitats.
This article aims to explore this diversity and discuss the different behaviors, diets, and features of each subspecies. Let us deepen our knowledge and appreciation for these often-overlooked birds.
The Sparrow, generally small and brown, is one of the most familiar birds around the globe. Sparrows fall into two primary groups - Old World Sparrows and New World Sparrows.
Old World Sparrows are native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. They are part of the Passeridae family2, consisting of about 43 species distributed among eight genera. They're characterized by their robust bodies and stout bills adapted for a diet of seeds.
In contrast, New World Sparrows extend to North and South America. They're classified under the Passerellidae family, with approximately 138 species spread across 30 genera6. They exhibit more variety in size and color, and not all species primarily eat seeds.
In this list, we discuss a mix of Old World and New World species of sparrows.
They are native birds of Europe and Asia and can also be found in North America and sub-Saharan Africa. However, the House Sparrow has unintentionally reached different parts of the world, becoming the most widespread bird1. It tends to inhabit human dwellings, leading to their presence in urban and rural areas.
The House Sparrow is a small bird, measuring approximately 6.3 inches and weighing around 0.85-1.4 ounces.
Additionally, the male House Sparrow is easy to spot with its black bib, white cheeks, chestnut mantle, fabulous grey crown, and understated grey underbody. The females and young House Sparrows' plumage is brown with a hint of grey underneath.
These birds enjoy gathering in lively flocks except during the breeding season.
House Sparrows are also flexible eaters, consuming grains, seeds, small insects, and other animal proteins.
The Spanish Sparrow lives in the Mediterranean and some parts of Southwest Asia. Moreover, the Spanish Sparrow prefers to live in farmlands, vineyards, and olive groves. They are also attracted to areas near water bodies.
This species surpasses others in size, reaching a length of approximately 6.3 to 7.1 inches. The male Spanish Sparrow has chestnut crowns and black streaks, while the females have a brown coat.
They usually live in large colonies with thousands of pairs and build their nests together using twigs and grass. Likewise, they are monogamous and share parental responsibilities.
The Spanish Sparrow feeds on grains and seeds but consumes insects during breeding. Notably, they produce a short series of chirping sounds unique to their species.
The Eurasian Tree Sparrow is a small bird found in woodlands, farmlands, and human settlements in Europe and Asia. It is 4.9 - 5.5 inches long and has a brown cap, nape, and pure white cheeks, each with a small black patch.
Despite its name, these sparrows also scour the ground, marked by a quirky bobbing motion while hopping.
The Eurasian Tree Sparrow has a diverse diet that includes seeds and berries. However, insects, particularly caterpillars, become their preferred food choice during breeding. Both adult birds and their growing chicks favor this meal.
During the breeding season, Eurasian Tree Sparrows become busy as both parents take part in feeding their offspring. Additionally, communal nesting habits become evident during this time.
The sparrows find shelter in tree holes, building crevices, or abandoned woodpecker nests and often share the space during winter to keep warm and provide companionship.
Fox Sparrows have a rich and russet coat. There’s also another type with a gray plumage morph. It is one of the largest sparrows, weighing 0.91-1.41 ounces and stretching 5.9-8.3 inches long.
Fox Sparrows also live in thickets and forest edges across North America, particularly in western regions. Moreover, the Fox Sparrow migrates during winter to seek warmer climates in the southern United States and northern Mexico.
Likewise, fox sparrows are ground feeders that perform a two-footed, backward-scratching dance to search for seeds and insects. Occasionally, it supplements its diet with small invertebrates.
Fox Sparrows sing a long and complex tune, whistling from a high perch in a tree.
Rock sparrows are characterized by their chunky appearance and neutral-toned, streaked plumage. It measures 6-7 inches, making it a reasonably robust sparrow.
Favoring rocky hills and cliff faces across southern Europe and Asia, this bird is most at home in rugged terrains. Echoing through these terrains, you'll hear its melodious, quick chirp. Its diet is rather broad, consisting of seeds, berries, insects, and occasionally, small reptiles.
The White-rumped Snowfinch, representing a remarkably adapted species, commands attention with its dusty gray-brown body and distinctive white rump. This bird's size hovers around 7 inches.
It dwells in the high-altitude terrains across central Asia. Its high-pitched call rings out in sharp contrast to its often desolate habitats.
Adapted to sparse vegetation, the White-rumped Snowfinch’s diet is mainly composed of seeds, but they also forage for insects, particularly during the breeding season.
The Clay-colored Sparrow is a small bird found in the brushy landscapes of North America. Its plumage is mainly brown and gray, with a soft gray face featuring a white eye stripe and a dark cheek patch.
As winter approaches, the bird migrates to warmer climates, where seeds and grains become the primary source of its diet.
During the breeding season, the bird feeds primarily on insects such as beetles, caterpillars, and spiders. The Clay-colored Sparrow can adapt to various diets and social behaviors.
Moreover, the species has a unique social life, including polygyny, where a male courts multiple females, and communal breeding, where a group of birds raises the young.
The American Tree Sparrow is a small bird known for its distinctive reddish cap, which contrasts sharply with its bi-colored bill and sets it apart from the similar-looking Chipping Sparrow.
The bird measures only 4.7 to 6.3 inches long and has a gray face and underparts.
During the breeding season, American Tree Sparrows live in the cooler climes of Alaska and Canada, where they inhabit the tundra and boreal forests.
During the breeding season, sparrows form monogamous pairs and build their nests carefully. These nests are typically under shrubs or grass clumps and are lined with feathers and grass for comfort.
In winter, they migrate south toward the central and southern parts of the United States, seeking refuge in weedy fields, marshes, and sometimes even residential areas.
American Tree Sparrows are ground foragers with a diet adaptable to their surroundings. They feed on insects and seeds during the warmer months, while grass and weed seeds become their primary food source in winter.
The sparrows' song consists of a series of clear notes that blend into a rapid warble, which creates a high-pitched symphony in the background of their habitats.
The Song Sparrow is a common bird species in North America. It performs melodious calls that add a musical touch to the environment. Each bird has a unique singing style, which includes variations in the basic melody that differ from region to region. The Song Sparrow's call blends chirps and trills.
Song Sparrows are medium-sized birds with brown backs splashed with dark streaks, which provide them with good camouflage. Their white underside is offset with dark streaking, and they have a noticeable spot in the middle of their chest that distinguishes them from other birds.
Likewise, the Song Sparrow can live in marshlands, fields, forest edges, and urban and suburban areas. They can nest near humans and will visit bird feeders from time to time.
Song Sparrows forage for food in undergrowth and around feeders, and their diet consists mainly of insects and seeds.
The Grasshopper Sparrow is a small bird with streaked brown plumage and a length of 4.3 to 5.1 inches. Its unique bird melody features a high-pitched, insect-like hum resembling a grasshopper's chirrup.
The Grasshopper Sparrows perform a unique serenade as part of the early morning symphony in North American grasslands. It lives in wide-open grasslands, pastures, and hayfields.
The bird is a master of camouflage, thanks to its buffy underparts that blend perfectly with the grassy landscapes.
Due to their ground nesting habits, spotting Grasshopper Sparrows can be difficult as they cleverly tuck their nests in dense grass or under shrubs, hidden from view.
Nest building is a fascinating process that involves the female constructing a dome-shaped nest that houses 3 to 6 eggs. Both parents are responsible for incubating the eggs, which lasts around 11 to 13 days.
The White-throated Sparrow is a medium-sized songbird commonly found in forests and backyards across North America. It has a gray body and white throat, and some say its song sounds like "Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." Due to its appearance and song, it has earned the nickname of the 'Canada bird'.
The White-throated Sparrow sings a melodious song and follows a unique 'double-scratch' feeding technique. This technique involves a hop forward followed by a hop backward, which allows the sparrow to use its feet to scrape the ground and find hidden food.
White-throated Sparrows are sociable animals that often forage in flocks. Their diet changes with the seasons, switching from seeds to insects and arthropods during the warmer months.
A melodic tune floats on the evening breeze as the sun sets over North America's vast grasslands and open fields. Likewise, they are adaptable birds that thrive in various open habitats, including grasslands, pastures, tundra areas, and roadsides, as long as some vegetation is available.
This captivating serenade is the call of the Vesper Sparrow, a medium-sized sparrow species with a striped brown upper body and contrasting white belly. A patch of chestnut is visible on each shoulder, and their tail feathers - long, rounded, and fringed with white - create a distinctive silhouette against the dusk sky. These sparrows have a white ring around each eye.
The bird's name comes from the Latin word for 'evening.’
Moreover, the Vesper Sparrow has a slender, pointed beak, which is well-suited for its preferred diet of seeds and insects. Vesper Sparrows forage for seeds from various grasses and weeds.
During the breeding season, they develop a taste for insects. These birds nest on the ground, choosing hidden spots amidst grass or small shrubs and building their nests with grass, twigs, and finer materials for comfort.
Moreover, the nests contain bluish-white, brown-speckled eggs, usually a clutch of 3-5. Both male and female Vesper Sparrows raise their young, with the female taking the lead in incubating the eggs.
These birds have a 5-year average lifespan and are often seen alone or in small groups, with some individuals living up to 9 years in the wild.
The Golden-crowned Sparrow has a bright yellow crown against a black head and gray cheek that distinguishes it from other birds. These birds inhabit the Pacific Coast region, ranging from Alaska to Canada.
Moreover, they possess exceptional endurance, undertaking a lengthy migration journey of over 2,500 miles from their breeding to wintering grounds, reaching Baja California in Mexico.
The Golden-crowned Sparrow exhibits a remarkable ability to adapt to different habitats. It lives in open areas with shrubs and trees during the breeding season.
However, in the winter, it seeks warmer surroundings and moves to open fields, gardens, and hedgerows. Its song is a series of clear, descending whistles that sound like "oh-dear-me."
The Golden-crowned Sparrow feeds on seeds, berries, and insects. It also consumes spiders, snails, and other small invertebrates during the breeding season.
The Savannah Sparrow inhabits various open habitats such as marshes, meadows, and agricultural fields. Despite its name, the bird is not restricted to the Savannah region in Georgia, claiming a wider range of habitats as its home.
The Savannah Sparrow can often go unnoticed due to its petite size. It has brown plumage, darker streaks, and a small yellow patch on its brow.
These sparrows have an exciting life that involves seasonal dietary shifts and long migrations. During the summer, they hunt insects; they feed on seeds in winter.
Their song is a series of swift notes followed by a trill, a constant in their habitats. Additionally, the northern populations of these sparrows embark on their journey south as the winter sets in.
These birds nest in grass or other vegetation, with the female laying a clutch of 3-6 eggs, which hatch after a 10-13 day incubation period. Both parents take responsibility for nurturing their young, which is a testament to their tenacity and commitment.
The White-crowned Sparrow has a striking black-and-white striped head pattern, contrasted by a soft gray face and breast. These birds range in size from 5.9 to 7.1 inches and have a wingspan of 8.3 to 9.4 inches, with a weight ranging from 0.88 to 1.16 ounces.
Juvenile White-crowned Sparrows have brown and tan stripes, which differ from the adult's pattern.
The White-crowned Sparrow is native to North America's western and northern regions, particularly in gardens, fields, and forest edges. They can survive in various habitats, including the tundra's edge.
During the winter, the birds migrate to the southern regions of the U.S. and some parts of Mexico. These birds eat seeds and grains but switch to insects and spiders during the breeding season.
Male White-crowned Sparrows learn their songs from adult tutors and use them to mark territories and attract mates.
The open landscapes of North America are home to Lark Sparrows, notable for their unique head pattern featuring chestnut and white stripes.
Additionally, the bird's chest features a central spot, which sets it apart from other sparrows. It also has white outer tail feathers that mark it for bird watchers.
The Lark Sparrow measures about 5.9-6.7 inches long with a 10.6-11.8 inch wingspan.
It lives in prairies, fields, and grasslands with shrubs and trees. Likewise, it observes a unique nesting behavior, preferring to nest on the ground, building its nest in clumps of grass or at the base of shrubs.
The Lark Sparrow feeds on seeds, grains, and insects, though it switches to insects during the breeding season.
Meanwhile, its song has a complex melody, different from the repetitive notes of other sparrows. Males sing during courtship rituals, which include fanning their tails and hopping around females.
The Dark-eyed Juncos are adaptable birds with a size of 5.5 - 6.3 inches. Its physical features are characterized by its dark eyes, pinkish sides, and slate-colored hood.
These sparrows live in various habitats, from coniferous forests to suburb backyards across the United States and Canada.
Moving on to their call, it's a simple trill resembling the sound of ringing bells. In general, their diet includes berries, insects, and seeds.
The Seaside Sparrow stands modest at 4.5 - 6 inches. It flaunts a vibrant grayish-brown body with a yellowish stripe by its eyes.
These birds favor marshes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. Their chirp is a series of sharp notes - a rapid "kitsch" sound. Their meals mainly consist of insects and seeds.
Switching to the Swamp Sparrows, they measure 4.7 - 6.1 inches. They exhibit a rusty color with gray faces and light underparts.
These creatures dwell in wetlands across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The distinctive trill intertwining with melodic whistles is their unique chirp. These sparrows feed on beetles, seeds, and caterpillars.
Lastly, The Black Throated Sparrow, measuring between 4.5 and 5.5 inches, has a bold black throat, streaked back, and grey belly, giving it a distinctive look.
This type of sparrow lives in deserts of the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. Its song resembles a sweet, mournful "pwee pwee pwee," and it forages mainly on the ground for insects and seeds.
The Field Sparrow is an unassuming bird with brown and white striping and a distinct pink bill. This petite bird measures around 5 to 6 inches in length.
Primarily residing in the eastern parts of North America, it is especially fond of open, scrubby landscapes. Its unique chirp, a series of sweet tweets, adds character to its surroundings.
Generally, the Field Sparrow's diet consists of seeds, small fruits, and insects during the breeding season.
The Chipping Sparrows sport a distinguishing rusty cap, a black streak through the eye, and a white or gray eyebrow—an average adult size up to 5.5 inches.
You can commonly find Chipping Sparrows across North America, from open woodlands to urban parks. Its trill is a rapid, dry, and monotonous chipping sound. While they munch on various seeds, during summer, they enjoy a hearty diet of insects.
The Brewer's Sparrow may appear simple with a uniform grey-brown plumage, but be aware. It's typically just under 5 inches in size.
This bird's choice of habitat spans the shrublands of western North America. Their song is a complicated jingle that's unique among sparrows. Their diet is a mix of seeds and insects, the latter essential during the nesting season.
The Olive Sparrow stands out with its olive-brown upper body and uniquely gray face. They are slightly larger and come in around 6.5 inches.
This species calls the brushlands of South Texas and Mexico home. Their song is a fast series of paired notes. They are omnivorous by nature; they feed on both plant materials and small invertebrates.
The Saltmarsh Sparrow is a small, secretive bird adorned with streaks of rusty-brown and gray feathers. Measuring around 4.5 to 5.5 inches, this bird makes its home in the salt marsh habitats of the east coast of the USA. The Saltmarsh Sparrow's diet consists primarily of insects and other invertebrates.
However, the species is listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List due to habitat loss and rising sea levels - the Saltmarsh Sparrow faces a significant challenge to its survival3.
Worthen's Sparrow is a tiny, elusive bird with a subtle, pale brown plumage. Barely reaching 5.5 inches in length, this sparrow dwells in the desert grasslands of Mexico. Its diet comprises various seeds and insects.
Sadly, this species is listed as Endangered. The primary threat is habitat degradation, mainly due to overgrazing and land conversion for agriculture4.
The Sierra Madre Sparrow is a quaint bird boasting a dark brown body contrasting with white underparts. It grows up to 6 inches long. This bird is endemic to the high mountains of Mexico, where it feeds chiefly on seeds and occasionally insects.
The Sierra Madre Sparrow has been classified as Endangered, with its main threats being habitat loss because of urban development and changes in local farming practices5.
Sparrows, despite their modest size and demeanor, play an integral role in our environment. They're diverse and widespread, found in nearly every part of the globe, from city streets to remote wilderness.
Their hues extend far beyond the familiar brown, black, and white of the common house sparrow. They're not just lovely to look at; they also help control insect and weed populations, benefiting ecosystems and human livelihood.
Let's remember that sparrows' survival reflects the health of our shared planet, underscoring the need to continue our responsible stewardship for the welfare of these small but vital-winged neighbors.
Summers-Smith, J. D. (1992). The Sparrows: a study of the genus Passer. T & AD Poyser Ltd.
Gill, F., Donsker, D, eds. (2018). "Old World sparrows, snowfinches, weavers". World Bird List Version 8.1. International Ornithologists' Union.
BirdLife International. (2020). Ammospiza caudacuta. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22721129A180407945.
BirdLife International. (2017). Spizella wortheni. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T22721182A118141491.
BirdLife International. (2020). Xenospiza baileyi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2020: e.T22721153A145167922.
Gill, F., Donsker, D., Rasmussen, P., eds. (2022). "New World sparrows, bush tanagers". IOC World Bird List. v 12.2.