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Learn to differentiate finches and sparrows

finches and sparrows
LOOK CLOSER: To determine whether you’re viewing a female House Finch (top) or a Song Sparrow (bottom), consider differences in plumage colors, leg colors, and behaviors, such as how high the bird perches or its flight style. Art by David Allen Sibley

Birders often struggle to distinguish the streaky brown birds, lumping them together with nicknames like “LBJs” (for “Little Brown Jobs”). It is truly challenging to sort out the many species and variations of birds that are small, brownish, and streaked. As always, one of the best strategies for understanding the variability and reaching an identification is to recognize broader groups of species.

Two of the most prominent groups of streaky brown birds are the sparrows and the finches. Both have conical bills for eating seeds and are mainly small and brownish with a streaked pattern. They are classified as two different families, which are not very closely related, and the fundamental differences between them can be obvious once you know what to look for.

(Note: The familiar House Sparrow is a Eurasian species, not related to native North American sparrows like Song Sparrow. It differs from them and from finches in many ways.)

* Finches tend to perch higher, in the tops of weeds, shrubs, or trees; sparrows tend to be on the ground or in low weeds or shrubs. Related to this, finches tend to perch more upright with their tail angled down, while sparrows often hold their tail horizontal or raised.

* Finches have shorter legs than sparrows, and their legs are often dark gray; sparrows have longer legs, which are often pale pinkish.

* Finches are plainer, less patterned; sparrows have more varied and intricate patterns. Comparing the two species shown here, for example, the finch has a subtle face pattern without much variation in the grayish color, while the sparrow has a boldly marked face in varied colors: chestnut, gray, and whitish. The finch has a grayish back with indistinct darker lines; the sparrow’s back has a bold and complex pattern of three colors: black, chestnut, and gray.

* There are also big differences in flight behavior. Finches are comfortable in the open sky, often flying long distances over treetops, while sparrows usually fly lower and disappear into dense cover.

These are generalizations, but they do apply to most finches and sparrows. Looking beyond the details that distinguish individual species to see broader traits like these can be very helpful in quickly sorting out and understanding two groups of species.

This article was first published in the May/June 2021 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

A dozen sparrow photos

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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