White-throated Sparrows, Zonotrichia albicollis, come in two morphs. One morph has brown head stripes, as here;
the other morph has black-and-white head stripes, as here. There is much individual variation. They all have white throats and are very common at many feeders in winter.
White-crowned Sparrows, Zonotrichia leucophrys, in their first winter have rufous brown head stripes
The dramatic adult White-crowned Sparrow has beautiful black head stripes and a white central crown stripe.
One of the best ways to approach sparrow identification is to learn what sparrow is in what genus and the distinctive characteristics of that genus, especially regarding shape. Shape is one of the best ways to identify sparrows, since these mostly brown birds can look alike. Becoming familiar with these shapes can help you place an individual sparrow into one of these groups, or genera; then you can look for plumage clues to complete your identification.
There are 12 genera of sparrows in North America. Only 5 have 3 or more species, and these are the ones that are most useful to know to use in this generic approach.
In our new best-seller, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, in addition to extensive photos and plumage information on all the sparrows, we give you a whole section on Identification Tips for Sparrows, including all the sparrow genera, go to page 656.
Tip: Your bird feeder is a great place to start to learn sparrow identification. Look at sparrows through your binoculars at your bird feeder and learn the characteristics of the shape of each genus. You will get better at ID-ing them and it will set you up to learn the sparrows in other genera. Here are some sparrows you might see at your feeder.
White-throated Sparrows are migrating and coming to bird feeders across much of the country now. Somewhat less common here in NH, White-crowned Sparrows are also migrating and coming to feeders. Both these species winter across much of the country and you may have them at your bird feeders all winter. We recently had 5 first-winter White-crowned Sparrows at our feeder amongst the many, many White-throated Sparrows.
These sparrows and other sparrows love to feed on the ground on millet or seed mixes containing millet. We make a special sparrow feeder by building a big brush pile and sprinkling the seed in front and under the pile. It's a sparrow magnet and provides perching spots and cover from predators. The big bonus for us is that we get to see lots of fall sparrows.
If you live in the far western part of the country, you will get lovely Golden-crowned Sparrows visiting your bird feeders. They have a golden forecrown, surrounded on the front and sides by black or brown.
All these sparrow species are in the genus Zonotrichia. On p. 656, on our Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, we discuss the Zonotrichia genus and say these are "large deep-bellied, broad-necked sparrows with a fairly small conical bill, rounded crown and fairly long, slightly notched tail." In addition to White-throated, Golden and White-crowned Sparrows, the Zonotrichia genus includes Harris's Sparrows.
Below are some sparrows in the Melospiza genus.
Song Sparrow, Melospiza melodia, frequently comes to feeders.
Swamp Sparrow, Melospiza georgiana, often found in swampy areas, not so much at feeders.
Lincoln's Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii, not much seen at feeders, but may hang out with other sparrows. We saw three on our property the other day.
Swamp Sparrows are in the genus Melospiza, along with Song and Lincoln's Sparrows. In The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America, we say of the Melospiza genus,
"* Melospiza: Medium-sized to large sparows with rather average proportions: they are slightly deep-bellied and have a medium-sized bill, rounded crown, and fairly long rounded tail. These sparrows are easily seen in brushy areas and marshes; when flused or curious they tend to fly up to higher perches for long periods and give short alarm calls. Some (Song Sparrow) come regularly to bird feeders. Includes Song, Lincoln's, and Swamp."
So get out there, build a brush pile sparrow feeder, use the genus and shape approach, and improve your sparrow identification skills!