I see that my bird classification skills are sadly out of date.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Bird names and classifications are every bit a baffling as those for plants, it seems. These are beautiful pictures.
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.
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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Your photo from last summer of goldfinches is especially beautiful.
Thank you for helping me identify the sparrows that I’ve befriended in my back yard. There are 5 or6 around my feeder at any given time and they are so conforyable with us, they met my daughter and I admire them from just a few metres away.
How wonderful Dave. That’s a great experience for kids to have.
Thks for the info. We have been trying to figure out the possibility of two different types of finches; lol, bc they were dull in color this year (for some reason we didn’t notice in other yrs.). Now I know why the males have such a drab coloration! I imagine the bright yellow will be during mating season, making them a handsome boy to the nearby females. ;0) I’ve been feeding various birds for a long time now, we have a pond and live near a lake, so we see a lot of critters. Thank you for this post; I’ll tag this site, so I may pop in again to view other nuggets of reading that you may post.
I’m so glad the blog post was useful for you. Please visit again, and thanks for your comments.
Thanks sue.l bordered my yard with sun flowers this year and what a surprise. These beautiful yellow an black birds feeding on the seeds.will so more study.
Sunflowers are a great choice for gardens — the bees love them too, in addition to the Goldfinches.