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Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Song Sparrow Photo

A rich, russet-and-gray bird with bold streaks down its white chest, the Song Sparrow is one of the most familiar North American sparrows. Don’t let the bewildering variety of regional differences this bird shows across North America deter you: it’s one of the first species you should suspect if you see a streaky sparrow in an open, shrubby, or wet area. If it perches on a low shrub, leans back, and sings a stuttering, clattering song, so much the better.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Song Sparrows are medium-sized and fairly bulky sparrows. For a sparrow, the bill is short and stout and the head fairly rounded. The tail is long and rounded, and the wings are broad.

  • Color Pattern

    Song Sparrows are streaky and brown with thick streaks on a white chest and flanks. On a closer look, the head is an attractive mix of warm red-brown and slaty gray, though these shades, as well as the amount of streaking, vary extensively across North America.

  • Behavior

    Song Sparrows flit through dense, low vegetation or low branches, occasionally moving onto open ground after food. Flights are short and fluttering, with a characteristic downward pumping of the tail. Male Song Sparrows sing from exposed perches such as small trees.

  • Habitat

    Look for Song Sparrows in nearly any open habitat, including marsh edges, overgrown fields, backyards, desert washes, and forest edges. Song Sparrows commonly visit bird feeders and build nests in residential areas.

Range Map Help

Song Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Streaky overall
    • Underparts pale with coarse brown streaks
    • Back gray with brown streaks
    • Face gray with brown markings
    • © Debbie McKenzie, Alabama, September 2008
  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Breast with coarse brown streaks
    • Often shows a spot in the middle of breast
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • Rather long tail
    • © Ed Schneider, White Creek, Tennessee, October 2008
  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Streaky breast, often with spot
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • © Mike E. Worthington, Georgia, January 2009
  • Adult Pacific Northwest form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult Pacific Northwest form
    • Darker and browner overall than eastern form
    • Coarse brown streaks on breast
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • Rather long tail
    • © cdbtx, Monroe, Washington, December 2008
  • Juvenile Pacific Northwest

    Song Sparrow

    Juvenile Pacific Northwest
    • Plain brown above
    • Streaky below
    • Larger and darker than Eastern
    • Rather long tail
    • © Seth Reams, Portland, Oregon, August 2008
  • Adult Pacific Northwest form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult Pacific Northwest form
    • Darker and browner overall than eastern form
    • Brown back, rusty wings
    • Gray eyebrow and throat
    • © birdmandea, Steilacoom, Washington, January 2008
  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Coarse brown streaks on breast, often with a spot in middle
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • Rather long tail
    • © Kevin Bolton, Secaucusne, New Jersey, November 2008
  • Adult eastern form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult eastern form
    • Streaked breast with dark spot in center
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • © Jennifer Taggart
  • Adult Pacific Northwest form

    Song Sparrow

    Adult Pacific Northwest form
    • Dark and brown overall
    • Streaked breast
    • Rather long tail
    • Thick, dark malar (moustache) stripe
    • © Terri Gueck

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Vesper Sparrow

    Adult
    • Bright white eyering
    • White outer tail feathers
    • Finely streaked grayish brown overall
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, December 2008
  • Adult tan-striped

    White-throated Sparrow

    Adult tan-striped
    • Distinct eyebrow (may be white or dull) with yellow lore
    • White throat
    • Drab gray breast (not distinctly streaked)
    • © Kevin Bolton, North Arlington, New Jersey, February 2009
  • Swamp Sparrow

    • Gray face, breast, nape, and eyebrow
    • Reddish crown
    • Reddish back, wings, and tail
    • Reddish brown sides and flanks
    • © Jim Paris, Williams, Pennsylvania, October 2008
  • Adult

    Savannah Sparrow

    Adult
    • Streaked overall, with clean streaking down sides
    • Yellow or yellowish eyebrow
    • Fairly small, pinkish bill
    • © Jim Paris, Williams, Pennsylvania, October 2008
  • Adult Red

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult Red
    • Thick, messy reddish streaking on breast and sides
    • Reddish and gray striped back
    • Gray eyebrow and nape
    • Larger size
    • © Jim Paris, Lenhartsville, Pennsylvania, November 2008
  • Adult Sooty

    Fox Sparrow

    Adult Sooty
    • Dull brown overall
    • Messy spotting or streaking on breast and sides
    • Larger size, large yellow bill
    • © niecke's nature, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia, December 2008
  • Adult

    Lincoln's Sparrow

    Adult
    • Buff breast with very fine, dark streaking
    • Buff malar (moustache), dark throat stripe
    • Gray eyebrow
    • © nieke's nature , British Columbia, Canada, April 2008
  • Adult

    Lincoln's Sparrow

    Adult
    • Brown back with fine, dark streaking
    • Buff malar (moustache), dark throat stripe
    • Gray eyebrow and nape
    • Slender bill compared to that of Song Sparrow
    • © France Dewaghe, Brandywine Creek State Park, Delaware, October 2008

Similar Species

Song Sparrows often have a dark spot in the center of their streaked breast. This is a good clue that you may have a Song Sparrow, but other species can show this mark, too – and it can be missing in some Song Sparrows, such as in the Pacific Northwest. To distinguish Song Sparrow from Savannah Sparrow look for the Savannah's yellow tinge between the eyes and bill, the shorter, notched tail, and the typically paler plumage. Lincoln's Sparrows have darker gray eyestripes, buff stripes on the sides of the throat, a buffy upper breast, and finer, crisper streaks overall. Fox Sparrows are larger and usually redder overall than Song Sparrows. The pale Vesper Sparrow has a white eye-ring, white outer tail feathers, and a small rufous patch at the bend of the wing.

Regional Differences

Scientists recognize 24 subspecies of Song Sparrows and have described some 52 forms: they are one of the most regionally variable birds in North America. In general, coastal and northern birds are darker and streakier, with southern and desert birds wearing paler plumages.

Find This Bird

In spring and summer, Song Sparrows are one of the most conspicuous of all sparrows. Males sing often, perching around eye level on exposed branches. Also watch for Song Sparrows moving along wetland edges, ducking into dense, low vegetation after short bursts of their distinctive, tail-pumping flight.

Get Involved

What's That Sparrow? ID tips from the Great Backyard Bird Count

Keep track of the Song Sparrows at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

Look for Song Sparrow nests and contribute valuable data about them through NestWatch

Researcher "Sings" for a Living to Decode Bird Songs (Cornell Chronicle)

You Might Also Like

Explore sounds and video of Song Sparrows from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

Downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

Song Sparrow from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)