Song Sparrows (left) have a distinctive vocabulary while Savannah Sparrows (right) are more specialized in habitat and flight. Photos: Brian Kushner

ID Tips

The Biggest Differences Between Song and Savannah Sparrows

A close look at these two doppelgängers shows some key contrasts in markings and song.

Look over there! Quick!

Ah, you missed it.

Sparrows—or "little brown birds" (LBBs) as birders like to call them—are tricky like that. They're always zooming in and out of bushes, confounding onlookers with their bland feathers and busy chatter. 

That shorthand, however, fails to capture the beauty of North America's sparrows. There are more than 40 species here in the States: from the svelte Brewer's Sparrow to the bulky, skulking Eastern Towhee to the invasive, pervasive House Sparrows.

This diversity can be hard to appreciate because sparrows like their privacy. Unlike many other songbirds, they forage for seeds in the underbrush and avoid flaunting flashy colors during breeding season. So if you do spot one out in the open, act fast with your binoculars; before you can blink, the birds will dive right back into the tall grasses or shrubs, never to be seen again.

Tackling the common LBBs is a fun way to challenge yourself and sharpen your birding skills. With a little patience and a keen eye and ear, you will soon have your sparrows down to a science. Let's start things off with two common, similar-looking sparrows that could be hanging around your home right now: the Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow. Click around the photos to uncover details about their best fieldmarks. (Because markings vary by geography, your local birds might not look exactly like the ones in the images.)

Song Sparrow

Other notes: Nailing this ID is paramount to learning your other sparrow species; it's the easiest to pick out or eliminate out of the long list of possibilities. As one of the most abundant, adaptable sparrows in North America, Song Sparrows can be found in a wide range of habitats: city parks, salt marshes, and even close to water sources in deserts. True to their name, they're often heard, not seen. Familiarize yourself with their cheery spring song and their year-round chimp call.

Savannah Sparrow

Other notes: These beautiful, mid-sized sparrows tend to inhabit open fields. They often fly in circles with their tails spread out, surveying the ground before landing. You won't find these birds at your feeder; look for them along roadsides instead. You can also see them on the coast, pecking away at shellfish and other aquatic bites. Their cup-shaped nests are usually built on the ground under weeds or dead plants—so watch your step.

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