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Lincoln's Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The dainty Lincoln's Sparrow has a talent for concealing itself. It sneaks around the ground amid willow thickets in wet meadows, rarely straying from cover. When it decides to pop up and sing from a willow twig, its sweet, jumbling song is more fitting of a House Wren than a sparrow. Though its song might conceal its sparrowness, its plumage says otherwise. This sparrow looks as if it is wearing a finely tailored suit with a buffy mustachial stripe and delicate streaking down its buffy chest and sides.

Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The Lincoln's Sparrow is a medium-sized sparrow with a dainty appearance. It has a rounded belly and head, but the back of its head often looks pointed or crested when it raises its crown feathers. Its tail is relatively short and its conical bill is a bit thinner compared to most other sparrows.

  • Color Pattern

    The Lincoln's Sparrow is streaky brown, buffy, and gray overall with rusty edges to its wings and tail. Its chest and sides are rich buff with fine black streaking that fades into a white belly. Its face is marked by a buffy mustache stripe that is bordered by thin brown lines. A buffy eyering, a thick gray eyebrow, and a dark eyeline mark the area around the eye. Its crown is striped brown and black with a gray central crown stripe.

  • Behavior

    Lincoln's Sparrows are secretive little birds that forage on or near the ground, rarely straying far from dense cover. During the breeding season, males sing either from exposed perches or tucked inside a shrub.

  • Habitat

    These sparrows breed in wet meadows filled with willows, alders, and sedges. They also breed in patches of aspens, cottonwoods, and willows as well as shrubby areas near streams. During migration Lincoln's Sparrows use brushy fields, forest edges, and thickets. In winter, they use tropical forests, pine-oak forests, tropical scrub, weedy pastures, and shrubby fields.

Range Map Help

Lincoln
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult

    Lincoln's Sparrow

    Adult
    • Delicate sparrow with small, pointed bill
    • Crisp black streaks on buffy flanks
    • Broad gray supercilium
    • Crown often "peaked"
    • © Carlos Escamilla, Laredo, Texas, November 2012
  • Adult

    Lincoln's Sparrow

    Adult
    • Small, dainty sparrow
    • Crisp black streaks contrast with buffy breast and flanks
    • Broad gray supercilium and buffy eye-ring
    • © Kelly Azar, Chester County, Pennsylvania, September 2010
  • Adult

    Lincoln's Sparrow

    Adult
    • Short-tailed sparrow with small bill
    • Peaked crown
    • Crisp, dark streaking on buffy chest and flanks
    • White belly
    • © Bob Gunderson, Cascade Ranch, California, January 2012

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Song Sparrow

    Adult
    • Chunkier with larger bill
    • Longer tail
    • Coarser streaking
    • Obvious central breast spot
    • © Christopher Wood
  • Adult

    Swamp Sparrow

    Adult
    • More rusty-colored wings
    • A clean gray collar
    • Faint blurry streaking down the chest and sides.
    • Clean white throat
    • © Jim Paris, Northampton County, Pennsylvania, October 2008
  • Adult

    Savannah Sparrow

    Adult
    • Thinner with smaller head and bill
    • Yellow (not gray) mark in front of the eye
    • No buffy wash to the chest
    • © Lois Manowitz, Cochise Lake, Willcox, Arizona, October 2011
  • Adult

    Vesper Sparrow

    Adult
    • Larger and chunkier
    • White (not buffy) eyering
    • Mustache mark
    • © Ned Harris, Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona, December 2009

Similar Species

Sparrows can seem like a confusing mix of streaking and facial markings, but there are also field marks that help separate them. Song Sparrows are chunkier with a larger bill and longer tail than Lincoln's Sparrows. They show a similar pattern of streaking but it’s much coarser and heavier than Lincoln’s, with an obvious central breast spot. Swamp Sparrows have more rusty-colored wings, a clean gray collar, and faint blurry streaking down the chest and sides. Swamp Sparrows also have a clean white throat, while Lincoln’s throat is finely streaked. Savannah Sparrows are thinner with a smaller head and bill than Lincoln's Sparrows, and a yellow (not gray) mark in front of the eye and without the buffy wash to the chest. Vesper Sparrows are larger and chunkier than Lincoln's Sparrows with a white (not buffy) eyering and mustache mark. Vesper Sparrows also flash white outer tail feathers in flight.

Backyard Tips

Birdscaping your yard to include brush piles and other bird friendly features can provide spots for them to forage and take refuge during migration and the winter. Learn more about birdscaping at Habitat Network.

Find This Bird

Lincoln's Sparrows are secretive little sparrows, but they are not impossible to see. Listen for their wrenlike song in wet montane meadows from mid-May through mid-July in the mountainous regions of the West or in Alaska or Canada. They tend to sing in pines along the edges of meadows or in low willow thickets, so walk along edges listening for their bubbly song. They don't tend to move much while they are singing, so you'll have time to search for any that you hear. During migration and winter they are not as obvious, but a little bit of gentle pishing in sparrow-laden fields and shrubby areas might encourage one to peek out of a shrub, giving you just enough time to grab your binoculars for a look. Sparrows tend to pass through in mixed flocks, during migration, so those first few weeks are a great time to check brushy fields for Lincoln's Sparrows.

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