Finch vs Sparrow

I see that my bird classification skills are sadly out of date.  Today I found out that the Indigo Bunting is grouped with the Cardinals, Rose-breasted and Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Flame, Scarlet, and Hepatic Tanagers.  How confusing!  For some reason, I have always lumped little birds with conical (finchy) bills into one group, when in fact, there are definitely two:  finches and sparrows (and then of course, one can further split those two categories into old world (Europe-Asia) and (New World – Americas), but I won’t go there in this post.

So, here’s the low-down on what to call the little finch-like birds in your garden.  (Like all rules, there are, of course,  exceptions to these generalities.)

1) If the male is brightly colored in his summer plumage but the female duller, resembling the winter plumage, the species is likely to be a finch, e.g., Goldfinch, House Finch, etc.

This male hasn't quite finished decking himself out in yellow and black, but he's close.

This male hasn’t quite finished decking himself out in yellow and black, but he’s close.

Male House Finches really stand out at this time of year.

Male House Finches really stand out at this time of year.

Female House Finches have some nice stripes, but no accent colors.

Female House Finches have some nice stripes, but lack the brilliant red accent colors of the male.

2)  Sparrows of both sexes sport a mottled brown, black, and white plumage that blends in nicely with their preferred grassy habitat.  Only the juvenile (first year after hatch) birds look different than the adult plumage.

This Swamp Sparrow was singing up a storm, but it was hard to locate him among the dead cattail stems and grasses.

This Swamp Sparrow was singing up a storm, but it was hard to locate him among the dead cattail stems and grasses.

Male and female White-throated Sparrows look identical, but the first year birds have brown head stripes and lack the yellow spot above the eye.

Male and female White-throated Sparrows look identical, but the first year birds have brown head stripes and lack the yellow spot above the eye.

3) Typically, sparrows feed mostly on the ground, scratching under the litter for seeds or insects, while finches are more arboreal, searching for food on the seed heads of perennial grasses, thistles, etc.

Even though there is a feeder full of delicious finch seed right above this bird's head, it prefers to look in the grass for fallen kernels rather than perch on the feeder.

Even though there is a feeder full of delicious finch seed right above this bird’s head, it prefers to look in the grass for fallen kernels rather than perch on the feeder.

A photo from last summer illustrates the plumage difference between male and female Goldfinches, as well as their preference for perching on the flower heads to harvest the seed.

A photo from last summer illustrates the plumage difference between male and female Goldfinches, as well as their preference for perching on the flower heads to harvest the seed.

4) It may be difficult to see differences in the shape and size of their bills, but finches generally have a stouter, thicker bills for their body size than sparrows.  That rule seems to work if you compare House Finch bills to those of Swamp Sparrows, but it looks like White-throated Sparrows have a pretty thick bill as well.

As I said above, there are exceptions to every rule…but at least I won’t be calling all seed-eating birds sparrows now without thinking about it first.

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8 thoughts on “Finch vs Sparrow

  1. Hi Sue – Your Finch vs sparrow blog was timely because I was seeing flocks of mostly female goldfinches and a couple birds that looked identical to female goldfinches but 2x their size on my feeder together. Now I’m guessing female goldfinches and female house sparrows. Also, Isn’t it great how scientific names are unchanging to avoid the confusion and imprecision of common names?

    • I guess I never realized that something with tanager in its name, for example, might not actually be a tanager, but could be a finch or a cardinal.

  2. Thanks, Sue. Names are confusing and even classifications can be complicated (and sometimes, it seems, species are sub-divided or combined). I love the opening shot of the goldfinch. I have tried several times this spring to get a good shot of one, without success.

    • Yes, why are they so difficult to get in focus. They don’t move as fast as warblers do, so one should be able to focus. I’m going to blame it on the yellow body color!

    • Thanks. I don’t even try to understand plant classification where there is such abundant variation in form even between species in the same genus. Constant surprises there.

  3. just rescued a tiny baby bird(abut 1.5 ” while sleeping w head under wing) which I assumed was a sparrow. It was dark brown on its back, beige everywhere else with definite black bar w/ beige stripes surrounding it on wing tips. A sharp narrowish bill and only a fringe for a tail. It was clinging tightly to the top of a chain link fence after a bad rain storm the night before (it was by then around 5:00.) No birds circled around but I left and came back when it was almost dark and took the bird off easily by hand. Kept it safely overnight–gave food after researching fledglings. Anyway today took it to our great rehab center, recently opened, City Wildlife in Washington DC, I was amazed that the Vet said it was probably tho not definitively an American goldfinch very young fledgling. Have checked out sound of finches, both the little ones & mature, on u tube and returned to the place where I found it & heard similar songs from the rescued one and from small adult birds I saw settling in trees nearby (no birds were near the place where I found the fledgling.)

    I had been guesssing it was some kind of a wren due to the tail and thin beak, but the body was a bit too round and legs too short. Anyway, learned that immature goldfinches, especially the females are not yellow. Am still mystified tho. City Wildlife will feed it, put it in a flight cage when ready and bring it back to the neighborhood or to our large park. Does anyone else have any ideas? Thanks, Vera

    • There are so many young birds out and about now, late in the summer — most of them still dependent on their parents for food. Male Goldfinches will lose their bright yellow colors soon, as they molt in a new set of feathers that make them look more like the females. The juvenile birds look more drab even yet, with their brownish-buff feather coat. The winter drab coloration helps them blend into the rest of the bleak brown, gray, and white-ness of the landscape, but by early spring, the yellows reappear in both males and females (to some extent).

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