If August is Shorebird Month, and September is Confusing Fall Warbler Month, October is Sparrow Month.   This can be tough, particularly when you’re just starting out.  Many sparrows look like other sparrows, and it doesn’t help that they like to skulk around in the brush and weeds, only popping up for a brief look around before disappearing again just before you get your binoculars focused.  Sometimes, though, and especially if you have one or more bird feeders with food on the ground, you may get nice long looks at a sparrow, and so it’s useful to be able to start learning how to tell at least some of them apart.

For instance, this one is remarkably easy to distinguish:  jack-sparrow

Most, however, are a bit trickier.  I find that, as is so often the case, learning the most common ones can be useful as a comparison, and in this case, the most common sparrows come in two flavors:  streaky and non-streaky.  We’ll start with streaky.  The common streaky sparrow in much of the country is the Song Sparrow:

Song Sparrow

The things to look for in this generally secretive, rather mouse-like sparrow, are the overall sense of ‘brown’-ness, the bold, smudgy streaks, often with a large, blobby central spot, long tail, with a rounded end, reddish-brown cap, and the big, triangular ‘moustache’ line which is usually flanked by a light or white malar line between it and the thinner brown line above it on the cheek.  The thing about Song Sparrows, though, is that they’re very variable – some are dark, some are lighter; some are sharper, some are smudgier; some are brown, some are reddish, and everything in between.

somngsp1 songsp6 songsp5 songsp3 songsp2

The easiest way to learn these sparrows is to watch them at the feeder every day for weeks and weeks.  After a while, you’ll get a feel for Song Sparrows, and you’ll be able to call them with some level of confidence no matter what details they happen to show.  That’s when you’ll start to notice that some sparrows just look different to you, even if they’re streaky and brownish.   What to look at first is the topic of the next post.