Birdwatchers often overlook both house sparrows (non-native) and native sparrows. But though they may not always seem the stars of the show, a range of rather inconspicuous brown birds can be interesting to learn more about as a garden birdwatcher.
In this article, we’ll look at what sparrows are, then take a look at some of the other birds that resemble them to help you get better at bird identification.
Let’s take a look at 7 birds that look like sparrows…
What Are Sparrows?
Sparrow is the name given to two distinct groups of birds. There are Old World Sparrows, indigenous to Europe, Africa, and Asia, and New World Sparrows, indigenous to the Americas.
Old-world sparrows are a group of small passerine birds of the family Passeridae. New world sparrows are in the family Passerellidae.
Old World Sparrows
Old world sparrows are also known as ‘true sparrows,’ a name given more specifically to the Passer genus within this group. Though native to the old world, some of these sparrows are now also found in North America.
Most notable among these are the House sparrow, Passer domesticus, found across the US, and the Eurasian tree sparrow, Passer montanus, now found in Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa.
Old World sparrows are small, plump, brown, and grey birds with short tails and stubby, powerful beaks. The differences between sparrow species can be subtle.
New World Sparrows
New world sparrows are seed-eating birds with conical bills. Generally brown or gray in color, many species have distinctive patterns on their heads.
Although they share the name “sparrow,” New World sparrows are more closely related to Old World buntings than Old World sparrows.
There are 138 species of new world sparrows, though, confusingly, only 68 of these include the name “sparrow” in their common names. 43 species have the name ‘brushfinch’ in their name. While the remaining 27 species have different common names.
You can find at least 33 species of native sparrows across the United States. Telling these apart from one another and distinguishing them from other common birds is not always easy.
These birds often look rather alike, and there are also several other species with which they can easily be confused. .
What Is the Most Common Type of Sparrow?
In North America, Old-World House sparrows, Passer domesticus, have naturalized and are found throughout the region.
They are perhaps one of the most widely recognized birds in the world. They have beautiful markings and build their nest from twigs surrounding water sources.
- Passer domesticus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in (15-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.1 oz (27-30 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-9.8 in (19-25 cm)
Breeding males have round heads, stout bills, gray crowns, white cheeks, a black bid, and a chestnut neck. The males are responsible for identifying sources of water and sources of seeds during winter for the flock.
Females are buffy-brown all over, with dingy grey-brown below and noticeable striping of buff, black and brown on their backs.
Other Sparrows That Look Like House Sparrows
House sparrows may be confused with the other non-native sparrows in parts of the US, the Eurasian Tree sparrow.
Eurasian Tree Sparrow
- Length: 5.5-5.9 in (14-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-1.0 oz (18-28 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-8.7 in (20-22 cm)
This sparrow has an entirely rufous crown and a dark cheek spot, which contrasts with the grey cheek of the house sparrow.
Which native sparrows are most common will naturally depend on where you live and the species that can be found there. But many can bear at least a passing resemblance to the house sparrow.
The key thing to remember when telling house sparrows and native sparrows apart is that house sparrows are generally fuller-bodied than native sparrows and have larger, rounded heads, more stout bills, and shorter tails.
In winter, you might encounter the American Tree sparrow, the White-throated sparrow, the White-crowned sparrow, Harris’s sparrow, Golden-crowned sparrows, or Dark Eyes juncos, for example.
Spring might bring the Song sparrow or the Chipping sparrow, and many further species can be sighted here and there during migrations.
American Tree Sparrow
- Length: 5.5 in (14 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-1.0 oz (13-28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.4 in (24 cm)
The American tree sparrow has a dark-colored spot on its breast that can help distinguish it from the house sparrow and other native species.
- Length: 6.7-7.9 in (17-20 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.7 oz (26-49 g)
- Wingspan: 10.6 in (27 cm)
Harris’s sparrows have plain brown faces, unlike the house sparrow’s white cheeks and chestnut neck coloration.
Sparrow or Finch?
New World sparrows are also frequently confused with finches, which share many similarities in appearance and habit, and sometimes used to be classified with them.
True finches are small to medium-sized birds in the family Fringillidae. It includes species referred to as siskins, canaries, redpolls, serins, grosbeaks, and euphonias, as well as those commonly known as finches.
In North America, 17 species of true finch are said to be regularly occurring. These include the American goldfinch, the house finch, the lesser goldfinch, pine siskins, purple finches, common redpolls, several grosbeaks, and rosy finches…
- Length: 5.1-5.5 in (13-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.9 oz (16-27 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-9.8 in (20-25 cm)
One way to tell finches from sparrows is to look at their beaks. House sparrows have small conical bills in shades of yellow or black, and a house finch has a big, thick beak with a grayish shade.
Finches are also often distinguished by a reddish tinge. But females and immature birds within the finch and sparrow groups of birds can often look very alike.
But female house finches are a cooler brown on top and have streaked underparts that female house sparrows do not have.
Sparrow or Wren?
Another group of passerine birds often mistaken for sparrows are the brown passerine birds known as wrens.
The originator of the name is the old-world Eurasian wren, though wrens are mostly in the new-world family of Trooglodytidae. Wrens are primarily insectivorous, eating insects, spiders, and other small invertebrates.
The smaller species of wren from the Americas are among the smallest passerines in that part of the world.
The dominating colors of their plumage are generally drab, composed of gray, brown, black, and white, and most species show some barring, especially on the tail or wings.
There are ten species of wren regularly occurring in North America, and one is considered an accidental vagrant. The Carolina wren is most commonly seen, which resides year-round across Eastern and southeastern states.
- Thryothorus ludovicianus
- Length: 4.7-5.5 in (12-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.8 oz (18-22 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4 in (29 cm)
The Carolina wren is set apart by its white throat and eye stripe.
Sparrow or Dickcissel?
One bird in the Cardinalidae bird family, the Dickcissel, is also often confused for the house sparrow. This small seed-eating migratory bird breeds on the prairie grasslands of the Midwestern US before heading south for winter.
- Length: 5.5–6.3 in (14–16 cm)
- Weight: 0.9–1.4 oz (26–40 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8–10.2 in (25–26 cm)
Though they look similar, the female dickcissel has a longer, heavier bill than the house sparrow and also sports a yellow eyebrow absent in the latter.
Of course, these are not the only birds that might be confused with the house sparrow or with native sparrow species.
But in identifying the birds that visit your garden, delving a little deeper into birds that are more difficult to tell apart, like all those ‘little brown jobs,’ can help you improve your birding skills and learn more about the wonderful natural world around you.