Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Sparrows belong to a widespread family of birds with conical beaks called Emberizidae that also includes the towhees, buntings, juncos, & longspurs. The word sparrow often brings to mind the house sparrow, a small bird which was introduced to America from Europe in the early 1850's. The house sparrow is not a member of the family Emberizidae and therefore unrelated to our native sparrows. Because of the house sparrow's high reproductive rate, its association with human dwellings and its aggressive behavior toward other birds, it is definitely on our most unwanted list. Unfortunately, many of us don't know much about the 19 species of native sparrows that utilize grasslands and other important habitats here in North Dakota.
The purpose of this publication is to make you aware of the variety of beneficial, native sparrows found in our state. We have a number of species that require grassland habitat to survive. The Baird's sparrow is one whose U.S. range is limited to only North Dakota, northern South Dakota and Montana and is sought after by birders all over the world.
This publication will also help you identify the differences between sparrows. Many times, sparrows are termed "little brown birds" because individuals don't realize how many species there are, haven't taken the time to learn the differences between them, or have not used the proper tools or equipment in an attempt to view them. By providing a logical method and keys to identify sparrows, helpful tips on viewing equipment, and through use of quality photographs, we will help you learn how to identify and appreciate both the sparrows of North Dakota and the habitats in which they live.
It takes someone with a lot of experience to be an expert in sparrow identification since these birds are all small and often quick to move from place to place. Those of us who aren't experts must rely on a logical thought process and a small investment in equipment to correctly identify these birds. Because sparrows are small, it is extremely helpful to invest in a pair of binoculars which will aid you in picking out the sometimes subtle distinguishing characteristics. The "process of elimination" method will help you get the rest of the way.
North Dakota's 19 sparrows are divided into two major groups, one that includes 14 nesting species that arrive in the spring, breed and stay until fall migration and another group of 5 that pass through in the spring and fall but move on to breeding or wintering grounds. This is important to know since sparrows like the white-crowned and white-throated that migrate through for only a week or two during the spring and fall would obviously not be seen during the summer.
Sparrows can be divided into two distinct categories based on whether they exhibit a solid-colored breast which we will refer to as unstreaked or a breast which includes a striping pattern referred to as streaked. 11 of North Dakota's sparrows have an unstreaked breast and 8 have a streaked breast. This is the first thing to look for when you spot a bird. This will quickly cut your "possible" choices in half. The following photos and descriptions of North Dakota's sparrows will help you by being presented under two primary groups; unstreaked and streaked birds. It must be pointed out that there are differences in coloration between juvenile birds and adult birds that will make identification sometimes questionable. The text describing each species that follows will be focusing on adult plumages.
Once you have visually determined your bird to be in the unstreaked or streaked group, you should look at the head. Almost all sparrow species have a unique coloration of the head which sets them apart from others. Some have vivid stripes on the top of the head, lines extending through the eyes, throat patches, eye rings, distinctive eyebrows or other patterns which help in making your final choice.
There are also several other things that can help in making final determinations. One is the central spot on the breast which is only present on three of our sparrow species. Habitat can also be helpful. Some birds are found in dry grasslands, others in wet meadows and some in brushy vegetation. Body shape is sometimes helpful. For example, the tree sparrow has a notched tail and the others don't. Some beaks are colored lightly and some are dark. Finally, the song can set one species apart from the others. The brilliant sound of the song sparrow or the buzzing insect sound of a grasshopper sparrow will surely identify them correctly. Bird calls are available on cassette tapes and compact discs through various outlets and are extremely helpful as birds are often heard before they are seen.
We hope you take time to learn the sparrows. They are a very important part of our wild songbird population and indicators of a healthy environment. After a few outings, you will be surprised at how many you can identify without any help. Don't be discouraged by being stumped because even the best birders have trouble with young birds who don't display the characteristic colors typically shown by adults. There are also some color variations in bird populations in the United States as you travel from west to east. For example, the size and color of the song sparrow is extremely variable across North America.
The Sparrows of North Dakota
This identification section will make use of excellent color photographs, many taken by Jack Lefor of Dickinson. Range maps will accompany each photo to give you a visual picture of where birds spend their winters and summers. Descriptions will also include whether a bird is a MIGRANT (Passes through for short periods during spring and fall) or a BREEDING SPECIES (Spends the spring, summer and fall within North Dakota). Additional information will include descriptions of distinguishing characteristics, preferred habitats and foods, relative abundance, sizes and other useful information.