IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern
Plump and long-tailed, American Tree Sparrows are busy visitors in winter backyards and weedy, snow-covered fields across southern Canada and the northern United States. Hopping up at bent weeds or even beating their wings to dislodge seeds from grass heads, they scratch and peck the ground in small flocks, trading soft, musical twitters. Come snowmelt, these small rusty-capped and smooth-breasted sparrows begin their long migrations to breeding grounds in the tundra of the far North.
American Tree Sparrows are small, round-headed birds that often fluff out their feathers, making their plump bodies look even chubbier. Among sparrows, they have fairly small bills and long, thin tails.
A rusty cap and rusty (not black) eyeline on a gray head, a streaked brown back, and a smooth gray to buff breast in both male and female American Tree Sparrows give an overall impression of reddish-brown and gray. A dark smudge in the center of the unstreaked breast is common.
Small flocks of American Tree Sparrows hop about on the ground, scrabbling for grass and weed seeds, calling back and forth with a soft, musical twitter. Individuals may perch in the open atop goldenrod stalks or shrubs, or on low tree branches.
Look for small flocks of American Tree Sparrows in winter in weedy fields with hedgerows or shrubs, along forest edges, or near marshes. They readily visit backyards, especially if there's a seed feeder. American Tree Sparrows breed in the far north and are rarely seen south of northern Canada in summer.
The easiest species to confuse with American Tree Sparrow is Chipping Sparrow, but their ranges don't overlap much in winter (the only time most people are likely to see American Tree Sparrows). If you are north of roughly Kansas in the winter, American Tree Sparrows are much more likely than Chipping Sparrows; south of this line Chipping Sparrows are more common. In winter, Chipping Sparrows have a less rufous (reddish-brown) cap than American Tree Sparrows. Look for a black line through the eyes of Chipping Sparrows; in American Tree Sparrows that line is rufous, the same color as its crown. Look for American Tree Sparrow’s distinctly bicolored bill—dark on top, yellowish below. Chipping Sparrow's bill is often dark or pinkish. Song Sparrows are heavily streaked on the breast, whereas American Tree Sparrow has a plain breast, sometimes with a single dark spot. Field Sparrows have a pink bill and a white ring around the eye. Lark Sparrows have a much more complex head pattern including rufous on the cheeks.
This species often comes to bird feeders. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.