New World sparrows (bird species in the family Emberizidae, visible in a mixed group above) can often be difficult to identify. The distinguishing features on these small, brown birds can be difficult to notice, and many of these birds don’t stay still long enough for you to get a good look at them with binoculars.
Lincoln Park hosts a wide range of sparrows during different times of the year. Dark-eyed juncos, who breed through most of Canada and Alaska, overwinter in Illinois and are one of the few species you will see hopping along the frozen pond at Nature Boardwalk looking for seed. We see the greatest number of sparrow species throughout spring and fall migration, though. As such, we thought it would be a good idea to point out what to look for while identifying some of the more common sparrow species we are currently seeing on our historic bird counts.
White-Throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
A white-throated sparrow in Lincoln Park
What to look for: A white throat and yellow next to the eyes. There are two color morphs of this species in Illinois, one with a white-and-black-striped head and another with a tan-and-brown-striped head. Interestingly, white-throated sparrows must choose a bird with the other color morph to successfully breed!
Vocalization: A haunting and melodic song of this species (a clear and slow “fee-bee-bee-bee-bee” with the first note being slightly lower than the rest).
Where to look for around Lincoln Park: I have been seeing a large number of this species around Lincoln Park zoo near the flamingo exhibits and next to the Chicago History Museum building.
May be confused with: Savannah sparrows and white-crowned sparrows. Savannah sparrows do have yellow around their eyes but lack a prominent white throat. White-crowned sparrows do not have yellow next to their eyes but have a black-and-white-striped head.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)
A chipping sparrow in Lincoln Park
What to look for: These sparrows have a rather bold rufous (red-brown) cap that turns black right next to their beaks, a white throat that blends into a grey non-spotted chest, and a long and thin black eyeline (a colored line that goes through the eye). Vocalization: It chips! The song of this species is rather difficult to differentiate between a few other sparrows that make long trills of the same sounding chip note. The best way to identify the song of this species is to come to the park and listen to it.
Where to look for around Lincoln Park: I always see at least two or three chipping sparrows near the Chicago History Museum on the ground.
May be confused with: Swamp sparrows and field sparrows. Swamp sparrows have the rufous cap but have black streaking throughout it. Field sparrows have no spotting on their chest but do not have a black eyeline.
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)
A swamp sparrow in Lincoln Park
What to look for: The swamp sparrow has a rufous cap with black streaks throughout that fades into black near the beak, white “mutton chops” underneath the beak, a dark brown eyeline and reddish wings.
Vocalization: This is another one of those species that fits under the long trills of the same chip-note category. This year I have not heard a swamp sparrow song throughout the park.
Where to look for around Lincoln Park: As you can guess by the name this particular species likes areas with water. Look around North Pond, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool and Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo for this species. It often darts around right next to the water, so you have to be quick to see it!
May be confused with: Chipping sparrows and Lincoln’s sparrows. As stated before, chipping sparrows have a rufous cap but do not have streaking through it. Lincoln’s sparrows have a much thinner eyering and thin stripes throughout their chest.
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
A song sparrow in Lincoln Park
What to look for: This species has a lot of streaking throughout its chest, a brown eyeline and two streaks of brown separated by grey on top of the head.
Vocalization: This species almost always starts its rather variable song with two or three steady “Bop, bop, bop” and then lets loose a rather raucous melody. One of my favorite sparrow songs to hear throughout Lincoln Park.
Where to look for around Lincoln Park: Rather prevalent everywhere throughout Lincoln Park. There has not been an area of the park where I haven’t seen one.
May be confused with: Swamp sparrows and Lincoln’s sparrows. These three species do have a lot in common in terms of appearance, but the song sparrow has the most streaking of the three. If you’re looking at a medium-sized sparrow with a lot of lines on its chest, possibly with a small brown dot in the middle, it is a song sparrow.
Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla)
A field sparrow in Lincoln Park
What to look for: The field sparrow is very lightly colored, appearing incredibly plain when compared to many of the other sparrow species. The orange beak, light coloring and small orangish dot right behind the eye are what I look for in identifying this species.
Vocalization: Imagine dropping a ping pong ball on a table; after a while it starts bouncing quicker and quicker until it’s resting on the table. Exchange every bounce sound from the ping pong ball for a clear whistling note, and you should be able to identify the field sparrow with almost perfect accuracy.
Where to look for around Lincoln Park: Just south of Nature Boardwalk, near the Chicago History Museum and in the field in front of the conservatory west of zoo grounds.
May be confused with: The chipping sparrow. Both of these species look rather plain, but the chipping sparrow has a black eyeline. Mason Fidino
Mason Fidino is coordinator of wildlife management for Lincoln Park Zoo's Urban Wildlife Institute.
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