Birding in the Hand: Song Sparrows vs Lincoln’s Sparrows

By November 30, 2022Education

Banding Trainee, Emily Munch. Photo by Susan Rosine

My name is Emily Munch and I was the first ever Banding Trainee for Bird Conservancy of the Rockies at the Barr Lake banding station this fall. My role was to learn how to safely extract birds from mist nets and how to identify, age, sex, and band birds. I’ve been out of college for about a year, and realized I was lacking in bird handling and banding experience, which is necessary to get a start in the bird banding field. From August to October this year I gained valuable hands on experience and I am excited to keep refining the skills I gained in future jobs. Before this trainee position, I had never been to Colorado and was excited to see familiar birds (like the ones we also have back home in New Orleans) and to learn new ones. While studying these new birds, I realized sparrow identification kept confusing me, so I wanted to share what I learned.


For many of us, birding happens from a distance, often with the assistance of binoculars or a scope. However, looking at birds in the hand can reveal subtle plumage characteristics that can be hard or impossible to see in the field. Sparrows can be tough to ID from afar, but up close they often have clues that can help you figure out what species you are looking at. I want to focus on two sparrows that are easy to confuse (and that I was confused by too!) but are not as difficult to tell apart as they may seem: Song Sparrows and Lincoln’s Sparrows.

Close-up of a Song Sparrow. Photo by Susan Rosine

Song Sparrows are a medium sized sparrow with bold reddish-brown streaking on its head and chest. While Song Sparrows have variation in their plumage across their range, they typically are reddish-brown with thick streaking on their crown, behind their eye, and on their chest. Song Sparrows can be found in wet, shrubby, or even open habitats. They also tend to come to bird feeders!

Lincoln’s Sparrows are also a medium sized sparrow; however, they are slightly smaller than Song Sparrows. With thin streaking on their crown, a thin streak behind their eye, and thin streaking on their breast, Lincoln’s Sparrows have an overall more delicate appearance. Another good field-mark to look for is the tannish or buffy color on Lincoln’s Sparrow’s upper chest. Lincoln’s Sparrows can be found in shrubby, wet areas, though during migration they will show up in a wider variety of habitats.

Song Sparrow on the left and a Lincoln’s Sparrow on the Right. Photo by Susan Rosine

 

These distinctions may seem obvious, but I find I can easily get confused when I am only looking at one species or when I am looking at them from afar.  Looking at them side by side can help better distinguish their differences. As noted, the Song Sparrow is slightly larger than the Lincoln’s Sparrow. I find this fact to be helpful when they are next to each other, but otherwise it can be hard to tell how “big” one of the sparrows is without another sparrow to compare it to.

What I rely on to tell them apart is their face and chest patterning! Lincoln’s Sparrows streaking on their head and chest is thinner and finer than the thick lines of a Song Sparrow. Lincoln’s Sparrows typically are also tanner in color than a Song Sparrow. Specifically, I look for a tan color on either side of the Lincoln’s face (below their beak) and also along the top part of their chest. Time-of-year can also help you tell what sparrow you are looking at. Lincoln’s Sparrows don’t nest or overwinter at Barr Lake; the Lincoln’s Sparrows we see use Barr Lake as a stopover site during their migration. By contrast, Song Sparrows can be found year-round at Barr Lake and are usually going to be the only sparrows seen in winter with the thick streaking on their breast.

Hopefully these descriptions and side by side comparisons are useful for all your future birding endeavors. If you still have some confusion, be sure to stop by our banding station at Chatfield State Park in the spring or Barr Lake State Park in the fall and hopefully you can see them in the hand!


Now it is your turn! You decide: Song Sparrow or Lincoln’s Sparrow. Test yourself on these quiz birds (scroll to the bottom for answers):

To learn more about our Banding Programs visit our WEBSITE. Thank you to Emily for being our first Banding Trainee at Bird Conservancy and giving us an in depth look at your experience. We wish you the best in your career as a bird bander and biologist.


Answers to the quiz: How do you think you did?

a. Song Sparrow

b. Lincoln’s Sparrow

c. Song Sparrow

d. Trick question! It’s a Chipping Sparrow! No fair you say? Well sparrows will try to trick you so it’s best to be prepared