A sparrow is just a sparrow, right?

English house sparrow

We have assigned the term "sparrow" to just about every little brownish bird we see. Most of the time, however, we think of the noisy English house sparrow that populates our cities and towns.

English house sparrows are not native to the United States and compete with native birds for nesting sites. In fact, they are not very closely related to our native sparrows at all. Native sparrows are beneficial, while the house sparrow, introduced from England and Germany, has become a pest.

They are especially frustrating

because they often take over bluebird boxes and purple martin houses.

There are more than a dozen species of sparrows that can be found in Illinois throughout the course of a year. Most inhabit open spaces, grassy fields and the edges of wooded areas. In town, you are most likely to see white-throated sparrows in spring and fall as they migrate through our state.

For those living in the country, other varieties may be seen coming to feeders.

The following pictures give a sampling of sparrows seen in Illinois.
The tiny field sparrow can be found at the edge of fields. The white eye ring and pink bill are helpful identifiers. Lark sparrows are most often found where the soil is poor or sandy. They have been declining in numbers throughout the U.S. The song sparrow likes to sing. In fact, it sings nearly all year round from bushes, woodland edges, gardens and roadsides. Streaks on its breast converge to form a dot.

The American tree sparrow is seen during the winter months. Note the black dot on its clear breast. They summer in the arctic regions and winter in the central U.S. Chipping Sparrows look a little bit like American tree sparrows. While the American tree sparrow is here during winter, chipping sparrows are here during warmer months. The Savannah Sparrow looks a little like the song sparrow except for the yellow eyebrow patch. They can be found in open areas including agricultural fields, grasslands and marshy places.


The white throated sparrow is seen in its regular plumage (above) and tan (in top photo). The white crowned sparrow is grayer than the white throated sparrow and lacks the yellow patch just above the eye. True to its name, the Vesper sparrow sings late in the day. Look for them near grassy ditch edges or fence rows.

This immature harris sparrow was visible at a bird feeder at Sangchris Lake State Fish and Wildlife Area this winter. Swamp sparrows like, you guessed it, wet habitats. During migration, however, they can be found in woodlands, weedy and brushy areas. Grasshopper sparrows can be identified by the yellowish patch above the eye and another one at the bend of the wing. They often spend the summer in central Illinois.

The fox sparrow is one of our largest sparrows, about the size of a thrush. It is often confused with a hermit thrush because both have reddish tails. The Henslow's sparrow is endangerd in Illinois due to the loss of its prairie habitat. It has an olive colored head and reddish body. It is elusive and hard to find. Finding the secretive LeConte's sparrow can be difficult. It lives in marshy or wet grassy areas. When flushed, it often disappears quickly back into the grass, making observation frustrating.
Lincoln's sparrows are normally seen at migration time. They nest in wet areas to the north of Illinois. The Eurasian tree sparrow is the smaller cousin of the introduced English house sparrow, but it is not as widespread. A small, isolated population exists near St. Louis, Missouri and into Illinois.

Photos by Dennis Oehmke, Chris Young and Kanae Hirabayashi
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