The very similar Sagebrush Sparrow breeds in the vast expanses of sagebrush in the intermountain West of North America. The two species’ breeding ranges come together in eastern California, and the species overlap on their wintering grounds. Sagebrush Sparrows are paler, with lighter stripes on the throat and more streaks on the back, than Bell’s Sparrows from coastal California. However, where the two species’ ranges approach each other they can be extremely difficult to tell apart, and many times the best a birder can do on the wintering grounds is mark these birds as Bell’s/Sagebrush. Black-throated Sparrow breeds in more desert habitats of the Southwest than Bell’s Sparrow. The Black-throated Sparrow has a bold black bib, crown, and cheek, and a white stripes over the eye and white malar or “mustache” stripe.
Bell’s Sparrow consists of four subspecies with somewhat distinct plumages. Two are noticeably dark gray on the head with nearly entirely dark tails and unstreaked backs: these are A. b. belli, which occurs mainly in coastal California sage; and A. b. clementeae, a federally threatened subspecies that occurs only on San Clemente Island. There are also two lighter forms: A. b. canescens, of the Mojave desert region, which closely resembles Sagebrush Sparrow; and A. b. cinerea, of Baja California, which has buffier face markings than the other three subspecies.
Find This Bird
As with many inconspicuous sparrows, the best way to find Bell’s Sparrows is to look for them in the early morning during the breeding season, when males perch out in the open on tall shrubs and sing for your attention. At other times they may be considerably harder to find. Just be aware that in the right habitat—particularly in coastal sagebrush in southern California—these sparrows are fairly numerous. They tend to forage on the ground and scurry rather than fly between patches of shrub cover. Patient watching and listening either for the sounds of foraging or for this bird’s bell-like tink call will help you find them.