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American Tree Sparrow

Spizella arborea ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

American Tree Sparrow Photo

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.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    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.

  • Color Pattern

    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.

  • Behavior

    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.

  • Habitat

    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.

Range Map Help

American Tree Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Long-tailed and round-headed sparrow
    • Bright rusty crown and eye line
    • Bicolored bill black on top, yellow below
    • Mostly pale gray/white below with buffy flanks
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, April 2011
  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Round-headed and chubby
    • Bright rusty crown and eye stripe
    • Bicolored black and yellow bill
    • Small dark spot on center of otherwise plain breast
    • © Laura Erickson, Duluth, Minnesota, April 2011
  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Bright rusty crown and eye stripe
    • Bicolored black and yellow bill
    • Dark spot on center of pale breast
    • © Adam Bender, Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, February 2011
  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Fluffy, chubby appearance
    • Bright rusty crown
    • Bicolored bill
    • Small dark spot on center of breast
    • © maia bird, Bristol County, Massachusetts, December 2009
  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Long tail
    • Bright rusty crown
    • Bicolored bill
    • Buffy flanks
    • Dark breast spot
    • © Gary Tyson, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, January 2011
  • Adult

    American Tree Sparrow

    Adult
    • Long tail
    • Bright rusty crown and eye stripe
    • Bicolored black and yellow bill
    • Rusty wings and buffy flanks
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Pennsylvania, January 2011

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult

    Chipping Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Similar to American Tree Sparrow but smaller, with shorter tail
    • Bold white eyebrow and black eye stripe
    • Plain gray breast with no markings
    • Solid black bill
    • © Michael Hogan, New Jersey, April 2006
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Chipping Sparrow

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Similar to American Tree Sparrow, but smaller
    • Darker brown crown and pale pink bill
    • White eyebrow with thin black stripe through eye
    • Plain gray breast
    • © Tripp Davenport, Real Co, Tennessee, January 2009
  • Adult

    Field Sparrow

    Adult
    • Smaller than American Tree Sparrow
    • Bold white eye ring
    • Pale pink bill
    • Rusty crown separated by gray central stripe
    • © Kelly Colgan Azar, Pennsylvania, January 2011
  • Adult

    Song Sparrow

    Adult
    • Similar to American Tree Sparrow but darker
    • Extensive dark streaking on breast
    • Dark brown crown stripes
    • Stout gray/black bill
    • © Ed Schneider, White Creek, Tennessee, October 2008
  • Breeding adult

    Lark Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • More slender than American Tree Sparrow with long tail
    • Boldly patterned face
    • Stout gray bill
    • Pale, sandy gray wings
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Menard, Texas, June 2010

Similar Species

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.