Sparrows in Tennessee

18 Sparrows in Tennessee: Our Ultimate Bird-Watching Guide

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Tennessee is home to 18 different species of sparrows throughout different parts of the year, playing host to year-round residents like the field sparrow, brief migratory visitors like Lincoln’s sparrow, or winter birds like the dark-eyed junco or American tree sparrow.

If you’re a new bird watcher, identifying all these different streaky brown birds can feel daunting, but if you know what to look and listen for, you’ll be adding them to your bird checklists in no time.

Let’s take a look at the most common sparrows in Tennessee and help you identify their habitats, markings, and some of their simple songs. All measurements are via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds.

House Sparrow

House sparrow
  • Passer domesticus
  • Length: 5.9-6.7 inches
  • Weight: 0.9-1.1 ounces
  • Wingspan: 7.5-9.8 inches

From the streets of cities like Nashville and Knoxville to surrounding suburbs and farms, the house sparrow has made itself comfortable across the North American continent since its unfortunate introduction in 1851.

House sparrows have also not made themselves popular intruders either, with their knack for displacing native birds among their least desirable qualities. Able to adjust to a wide variety of habitats, they nest in cavities, which puts them in direct competition with charismatic and sometimes ecologically delicate species such as bluebirds.

Males and females vary from one another in appearance. Males have a more signature look, with faces flanked in chestnut brown, white cheeks, and a black chin, throat, and bill.

Females have large bills with rather undecorated undersides and faces. Their patterned brown wings are not as rich in color as the males’ are.

Chipping Sparrow

Chipping Sparrow

Named for its chipping sound, this sparrow is a common bird across much of its range.

That range includes all of Tennessee during breeding months and the southern half of the state throughout the entire year.

Breeding adults have a reddish-brown cap and a black eyeline, but the sharpness of those colors is faded on non-breeding and immature birds, with a duller brown cap and dark–but not quite as crisply black–eyeline.

Chipping sparrows live in sparse woodlands and forest clearings and may visit backyard bird feeders or the ground below them, especially in areas with adequate tree cover nearby.

According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, chipping sparrows are one of the earliest spring arrivals each year.

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

The signature marking of many American tree sparrows is a dark marking in the center of the chest, which can sometimes be a bold, well-defined circle and other times be obscured by light feathers and appear as an ill-defined smudgy mark.

They have a reddish-orange eyeline and cap and a bill that’s dark on top and yellow on the bottom.

American tree sparrows are winter visitors to the United States from their North Canadian and Alaskan breeding grounds – the word grounds used in more ways than one.

American tree sparrows were named by Europeans for a supposed resemblance to Eurasian tree sparrows, but they don’t actually spend much time in trees (or look much like Eurasian tree sparrows, for that matter).

They’re ground-foraging birds that may be seen below feeders as they look to get a full day’s food, which can be a lot. According to All About Birds, they need to eat about 30 percent of their body food per day, and a day without food can result in death.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow
  • Melospiza melodia
  • Length: 4.7-6.7 inches
  • Weight: 0.4-1.9 ounces
  • Wingspan: 7.1-9.4 ounces

Song sparrows may also have reddish brown eyelines and caps, but their streaky breasts set them apart from the tree sparrow and its unmarked underside.

Song sparrows vary substantially across their North American range, with 24 different subspecies, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, which states that southern song sparrows tend to be a more pale brown compared to northern and western song sparrows.

Song sparrows are residents across Tennessee in winter, as well as breeding residents in the eastern half of the state, where they reside in open areas such as backyards, fields, and suburban areas.

If you’re walking through your neighborhood or local park and hear a sweet, familiar song during the spring or summer, there’s a decent chance it’s a song sparrow.

Lark Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio form the bulk of the easternmost stretches of the lark sparrow’s range, which includes parts of every Lower 48 state west of Tennessee,

They’re rare in the state, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, but some lark sparrows spend the summer months in western and central parts of the Volunteer State, mostly in the cedars of Rutherford and Wilson counties.

They prefer grasslands and other open areas, meaning eastern Tennessee doesn’t quite suit them.

They’re sharp, unique sparrows with a black spot in the center of an otherwise pale chest, like some tree sparrows, but their faces are truly unique, with chestnut-brown cheeks and caps and thick bands of alternating white and black.

When viewed from the front, their long tails of segmented white, gray, and black will surely stand out as well.

LeConte’s Sparrow

LeConte's sparrow

Our first non-breeding sparrow on this list, LeConte’s sparrow sightings are spotty across the state, with a large proportion of those limited sightings coming in areas near the Tennessee and Mississippi rivers.

These rare winter visitors have a yellow tint to them with a dark eyeline that pools into a wider spot near the nape. The yellow-orange tint is more evident on some birds than others and usually stretches to the chest, where it meets a white belly.

Their backs are densely patterned with a couple of darker lines over the top of the bird’s head.

Nelson’s Sparrow

Nelson's Sparrow
  • Ammospiza nelsoni
  • Length: 4.3-5.1 inches
  • Weight: 0.6-0.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 6.5-7.9 inches

You could copy and paste much of the LeConte’s sparrow definition and apply it to this small sparrow: it’s rare, often yellow-tinged, and a non-breeding visitor along the western edge of the state.

Nelson’s sparrow sightings are even more few and far between, as they’re not likely to stay longer than a quick stop on their annual migration routes.

If you’re lucky enough to spot one on their spring or fall trips, you’ll see a streaky-chested bird with a golden color spread throughout patches of gray, brown, and pale gray.

Field Sparrow

Field Sparrow
  • Spizella pusilla
  • Length: 4.7-5.9 inches
  • Weight: 0.4-0.5 ounces
  • Wingspan: 7.9 inches

Back to more common sparrows in this area, next we have the field sparrow, a year-round Tennessean. Their understated markings include a reddish eyeline and cap, pale unstreaked underside, and light brown backs and wings. A pinkish bill is another helpful identifier.

Their year-round presence lends itself to hearing their calls every spring and summer, which is notable for its tweets that turn quickly to a trill like a basketball bouncing lower and lower on the ground until it comes to a rest.

Their numbers are decreasing across their range due to changes in their habitat, but they’re still relatively widespread and common birds, increasingly in the winter months in Tennessee as northern birds move south and add to the state’s resident population.

Swamp Sparrow

Swamp sparrow

Swamp sparrows are aptly named residents of marshes, wetlands, swamps, and bogs, among other wet areas like wet, flooded fields or yards.

They take up these locations in the Volunteer State each fall and stay until the spring when they’ll head north to Canada and the northern United States.

Swamp sparrows have gray faces and napes and rather dark brown caps and eyelines. Their backs are a rich brown with mostly brown sides. Overall, they’re more brown birds than others like chipping sparrows, field sparrows, or tree sparrows, which have pale undersides.

The bottom of the swamp sparrow’s bill is yellow with a black upper half, similar to the American tree sparrow.

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

When looking only at the face, it might be easy to confuse a swamp sparrow for Lincoln’s sparrow, as they both have relatively dark caps and eye lines and gray faces overall.

But once you move down the body, the differences start to reveal themselves in the form of the Lincoln’s sparrow’s dark streaks down the chest and the swamp sparrow’s rufous-red wings and back compared to relatively dull browns on the Lincoln’s sparrow.

Any Lincoln’s sparrows in Tennessee are merely passing through. The majority of them summer in Canada and make their way down to Mexico for the winter.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow Passerella iliaca
  • Passerella iliaca
  • Length: 5.9-7.5 inches
  • Weight: 0.9-1.6 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10.5-11.4 inches

Fox sparrows are uniquely streaky, with blotchy, poorly defined streaks that contrast with the thin, concise streaks of birds like the Lincoln’s sparrow.

Fox sparrows feature serious regional variations, but those in the eastern United States are going to be the typical red variety for which the fox sparrow is named.

The Fox sparrow’s breeding range consists mostly of Canada and the northwestern United States If you want to see one in Tennessee or any other state east of the Rockies, it’s more than likely going to be in winter when they head down to southern forests to wait out the northern cold.

They become a somewhat common bird in Tennessee during the winter, and may even be seen in larger urban areas and their tree-laden backyards or parks.

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Savannah sparrows have been recorded during the breeding season in Hawkins, Washington, Johnson, Carter, Cocke, Greene, and Sullivan counties since 1973 as a relatively recent breeder in the state, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

They’re migratory or winter visitors for residents of the rest of the state and are most common in farm fields, grasslands, and other open spaces.

They are streaky brown birds throughout their entire undersides, with small, lightly colored bills, and signature yellow eyebrow lines in front of and above each eye.

Vesper Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Among the birds theoretically likely to share similar nesting habitats to Savannah sparrows are vesper sparrows and grasshopper sparrows, the next bird on our list.

But sightings of vesper sparrows, in general, are quite rare in Tennessee, and any sighting during the breeding months is a small miracle. From 2013 to 2013, there were just four reported sightings in the state by eBird users. One was at Bells Bend Park west of Nashville, with one each in 2017, 2018, and 2019 in the southeastern part of the state.

Vesper sparrows have similar streaking and coloration to Savannah sparrows, but they have a thick white eye ring without the Savannah’s yellow eyebrow.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

After two rare grassland breeders in Tennessee, we come to the grasshopper sparrow, a widespread Volunteer State breeder.

In addition to eating insects like grasshoppers, they also let out a buzzing song reminiscent of a bug:

Grasshopper sparrows have a little yellow mark above the eyebrow that may be more of a yellow face, with a proportionately large bill compared to their tiny figure, as they may be as many as two inches shorter with an inch and a half shorter wingspan than a vesper sparrow.

Come the fall, grasshopper sparrows will be on their way to more southern states.

Their undersides are unmarked with light markings on their backs and head, and they have short little tails.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned sparrows are classic winter birds, with their signature gray, white, and black look giving them away among the green and brown of the Tennessee landscape.

Their body is light gray from the belly up to the bill and eye, where their white and black crown begins.

In northern states like the Upper Midwest, each migration season, you may not have seen a white-crowned sparrow in months, but their arrival and departure not long after is often a sign that the seasons are changing. In Tennessee, they stay throughout the winter.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

White-crowned sparrows are common winter birds, but the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency lists the white-throated sparrow as the state’s most common winter sparrow.

As the name suggests, these sparrows have white throats, but that’s not all there is to this unique sparrow.

White-throated sparrows have two distinct forms. One is a boldly patterned bird with a similar cap to the white-crowned sparrow, with a yellow spot above the eyebrow, gray underside, and brown back and wings. This is called the “white-striped” form.

The other, a “tan-striped” form, still has a white throat, but it’s much less conspicuous, as it lacks some of the other identifying characteristics, with a dark eyeline and brown head stripes.

The saying “opposites attract” is especially true with these birds, as nesting pairs consist of one bird from each color morph over 95 percent of the time, according to the National Audubon Society.

And pairings that don’t include one of each tend to be unhappy couples that don’t result in successful parenting. It’s almost as though it’s a species with four sexes: white-striped females, tan-striped females, white-striped males, and tan-striped males.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Juncos
  • Junco hyemalis
  • Length: 5.5-6.3 inches
  • Weight: 0.6-1.1 ounces
  • Wingspan: 7.1-9.8 inches

For most Tennesseeans, the dark-eyed junco’s arrival each year means colder months are ahead, while its departure means summer is just around the corner.

While they primarily breed in northern regions, their breeding range does include the very eastern edge of the Volunteer State.

In western states, the junco is known partially for its regional differences in color and pattern, but from the Great Plains eastward, the slate-colored dark-eyed junco is the only subspecies.

The male has a classic slate-gray look covering most of its body, with white undersides and a pink bill. Females, despite the slate-colored moniker, are a mix of tan and other light colors, but their round shape, dark eyes, and pink bill can still help you identify one.

They’re commonly seen hopping across the forest floors or picking up fallen seeds below backyard feeders.

Eastern Towhee

Eastern Towhee

The only towhee likely to be seen in Tennessee is the eastern towhee, which breeds from the eastern edge of the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean.

Eastern towhees remain in the state year-round, where they primarily occupy areas of dense vegetation like forests. On average, they’re larger than any other sparrow on this list.

Males have orange sides, white undersides, black heads, chests, and backs, as well as a large gray bill and red eyes. Females have similar patterns with a chocolate brown hue whereas the males are black.

Eastern towhees are rather distinctive birds unlikely to be confused with any other besides the spotted towhee, which is not typically found east of the Great Plains, although they are occasionally reported here. A male was frequently reported by eBird users in the winter of 2021 in Williamson County, for example.

More To Explore

While these are the most common sparrows in Tennessee, birds can end up anywhere, and you never know what you’re going to see when you head out into the field.

According to the Tennessee Ornithological Society, 423 species have been recorded in the state, including additional species like the clay-colored sparrow, Bachman’s sparrow, lark bunting, golden-crowned sparrow, Henslow’s sparrow, green-tailed towhee, and spotted towhee.

For lists of sparrows in other states, as well as Tennessee’s ducks, hummingbirds, owls, hawks, and woodpeckers, visit WildBirdScoop, where we also have lists of some of the state’s most popular birds and temporary visitors to the Volunteer State.

Happy birding!

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