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Sparrows of San Diego County

An Identification Program

For photos and more information on these species, please go to the San Diego Bird Pages.

Skins provided by the San Diego Natural History Museum

(Rufous-capped Sparrows, the "Chippy" Complex, the "Whitey" Complex, Gray-headed Sparrows, White-tailed Sparrows, Streaked Sparrows, Ammodramus Sparrows)

Introduction:  Habitat types (those in red are rare or vagrants)

S = Summer Resident

W = Winter Resident

P = Permanent Resident

    A.    Parks/Suburbia     

            Chipping Sparrow (W)

            Clay-colored Sparrow

            Dark-eyed Junco (W)

            Song Sparrow (P)

            White-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Golden-crowned Sparrow (W)

            White-throated Sparrow

            American Tree Sparrow

    B.    Coastal Marsh

            Belding's Savannah Sparrow (P)

            Large-billed Savannah Sparrow

            Nelson's Sparrow

            Swamp Sparrow

            Harris' Sparrow

    C.    Agricultural

            Savannah Sparrow (nominate races) (W)

            Chestnut-collared Longspur

            Lapland Longspur

            Lark Bunting

    D.    Chaparral/Sage Scrub

            Rufous-crowned Sparrow (P)

            Fox Sparrow (W)

            Bell's Sage Sparrow (P)

            Black-chinned Sparrow (S)

            White-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Golden-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Dark-eyed Junco (W)

    E.    Riparian

            Song Sparrow (P)

            Lincoln's Sparrow (W)

            White-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Golden-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Dark-eyed Junco (W)

    F.    Grassland

            Grasshopper Sparrow (P)

            Savannah Sparrow (nominate races) (W)

    G.    Oak Savannah  

            Lark Sparrow (P)

            Vesper Sparrow (W)

    H.    Oak Woodland

            Dark-eyed Junco (P)

            Song Sparrow (riparian only) (P)

            White-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Golden-crowned Sparrow (W)

            Chipping Sparrow (P)

    I.    Mountains

            Chipping Sparrow (S)

            Dark-eyed Junco (P)

            Lark Sparrow (S)

    J.    Desert

            Black-throated Sparrow (S)

            Desert Sage Sparrow (W)

            Brewer's Sparrow (W)

            White-crowned Sparrow (W)


Identification Notes

I.    Rufous-capped Sparrows

A.    Rufous-crowned Sparrow (Aimophila ruficeps)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Black malar stripe

b.   Gray-brown above with reddish streaks

c.   Unmarked breast

2.   Status:  Uncommon to fairly common resident in coastal sage scrub/chaparral

3.   Voice:

a.   Song: an unmusical jumble

b.   Calls: a repeated “peow-peow-peow-peow!” almost reminiscent of a Cassin’s Kingbird


B.    Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Gray face

b.   Rich rufous in wings

c.   Little if any streaking on breast

2.   Status:  Annual winter vagrant in marshes, usually freshwater

3.   Voice:

a.   Song: a musical trill, slower and more “choppy” than Chipping

b.   Call: a phoebe-like peep

C.    American Tree Sparrow (Spizella arborea)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Bicolored bill

b.   Chestnut patch on side of breast

c.   “Stickpin”

2.   Status:  Rare vagrant in parks

3.   Voice:  Call: Described as “jingling”-a descending tseelup (song unlikely to be heard in San Diego)



Rufous-crowned (above) and Swamp (below)                                    Rufous-crowned (above) and American Tree (below)


II.  The “Chippy” Complex (genus Spizella)

A.  Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)

1.   Field Marks (breeding):

a.   Rufous cap

b.   White supercillium

c.   Black transocular line

2.   Field Marks (non-breeding):

a.   Some rufous in crown

b.   Complete transocular line

c.   Gray underparts

d.   Gray rump

3.   Status:

a.   Fairly common localized breeder in the high mountains

b.   Fairly common but local in winter, usually in parks along the coast

4.   Voice:  Song, a dry, continual trilling


B.    Clay-colored Sparrow (Spizella pallida)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Whitish central crown stripe

b.   Postocular line

c.   Gray collar against buffy breast

d.   Brown rump

2.   Status:  Annual vagrant, usually on Pt. Loma

3.   Voice:  Song, a series of three or four drawn-out buzzes on a single pitch (not likely to be heard in San Diego)


C.    Brewer’s Sparrow (Spizella breweri)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Evenly streaked crown

b.   Postocular line and eyering give a “cute” look

c.   Duller overall than other Spizellas

2.   Status:

a.   Fairly common winter visitor in the deserts, although numbers fluxuate

b.   Extremely rare breeder in high desert

3.   Voice:  Song, kind of a cross between Chipping and Clay-colored: a long string of buzzes and musical trills on different pitches.



                     Chipping (left) and Clay-colored (right)                                                Chipping (top) and Clay-colored (bottom)



                          Chipping (top) and Clay-colored (bottom)                                                                Chipping (top) and Brewer's (bottom)


III.       The “Whitey” Complex (genus Zonotrichia)

A.  White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

1.   Field Marks (adult):

a.   Black-and-white striped head

(1)  gambelii has pale lores

(2)  oriantha has darker lores

b.   Pink/yellow bill

c.   Uniform underparts

2.   Field Marks (immature):

a.   Rufous stripes rather than black

b.   Pinkish-orange bill

c.   Strong supercillium and post-ocular stripe

3.   Status: You can’t help but step on ‘em (in winter)

4.   Voice:

a.   Song: Usually starts with a longish whistle, followed by sets of one or two whistles each on various pitches, sounding rather wheezy by the end.

b.   Call: a bunting-like pink


 B.    Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

1.   Field Marks (adult):

a.   Unmistakable: black cap with golden central stripe

2.   Field Marks (immature):

a.   “Kiss of gold” on forehead

b.   Dark bill

c.   Lack of strong supercillium and post-ocular stripe

d.   Overall “dirtier” look

3.   Status:  Fairly common in winter, usually with Whiteys, but sometimes by themselves in chaparral in higher elevations

4.   Voice:  Song rarely heard in San Diego County; cadence similar to White-crown’s, but tones are purer without the wheezy quality.


C.    White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Yellow lore spot

b.   Dark bill

c.   Contrasting white throat

2.   Status: Annual vagrant, usually in parks or residential areas

3.   Voice:  Doubtful to be heard in San Diego County: two clear notes followed by three sets of triplets, usually transcribed as “Poor Sam Peabody-Peabody-Peabody!”


D.    Harris’ Sparrow (Zonotrichia querula)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Black splotches on breast

b.   From Lark Bunting by

(1)  pink bill

(2)  Lack of strong streaking on underparts

c.   Dark auricular spot

2.   Status:  Rare vagrant

3.   Voice:  Song, a series of three long whistles on the same pitch.



             Immature White-crowned (left) next to Golden-crowneds                               Immature Golden-crowned (top) and White-crowned (bottom)    



             Adult oreantha White-crowned (top) and gambelii (bottom)                                        White-crowned (top) and White-throated (bottom)



             Breeding (left) and NB Harris'                                                Breeding (top) and NB Harris'

IV. Gray-headed Sparrows

A.  Black-throated Sparrow (Amphispiza bilineata)

1.   Field Marks (adult):

a.   No-brainer: strong facial pattern with contrasting black throat

2.   Field Marks (immature):

a.   Bold white supercillium

b.   Streaking across breast

3.   Status:  Common in the deserts, but tend to avoid alkaline areas

4.   Voice:  A variety of light, tinkling sounds


B.    Sage Sparrow (Amphispiza belli)

1.   Field Marks (adult):

a.   Gray head contrasts with brown back

b.   White throat

c.   Black stickpin

d.   “Bell’s” is darker and more richly colored than Desert race

2.   Field Marks (immature):

a.   Similar to Black-throated, but lacks the bold white supercillium

3.   Status:  Belli present year round in chaparral and coastal sage scrub, but hard to kick up in winter; nevadensis occurs in winter in the deserts and is more cooperative

4.   Voice:

a.   Song: A rambling song, slower and more musical than Rufous-crowned.  “Bell’s” is higher-pitched and quicker, while the interior birds are slower and more mellow-sounding.

b.   Calls: a junco-like tsk!


C.    Black-chinned Sparrow (Spizella atrogularis)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Pink bill

b.   Mostly gray (including underparts)

c.   Brown back with blackish streaks

2.   Status:  Very common breeder in chaparral areas; generally absent in winter, but the odd one may hang around

3.   Voice:

a.   Song, a distinctive, bright, “bouncing ball” effect. 

b.   Calls similar to Sage Sparrow.


                              L-R: Black-throated ad., Black-throated juv., Sage juv., Desert Sage ad., Bell's Sage ad



                                 Juv. Black-throated (top) and Sage (bottom)                                        Female Black-chinned (top) and Gray-headed Junco (bottom)


D.    Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

1.   All races have white outer tail feathers

2.   “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  From Black-chinned Sparrow by white underparts and unmarked back

(2)  Female has paler hood

(3)  Both sexes have light brown sides

3.   “Pink-sided” Junco

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  Male has dark lores

(2)  From female Oregon by extensive light brown sides, almost meeting on the chest

 4.   “Gray-headed” Junco

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  From other juncos by overall gray plumage contrasting with brown back

(2)  From Black-chinned Sparrow by lack of streaks on back, white outer tail feathers, and season

5.   “Slate-colored” Junco

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  From other juncos by entirely gray plumage with contrasting white belly

6.   Status:

a.   Oregon: Common and widespread in winter; breeds primarily in the mountains, but there are isolated colonies on the coast.

b.   Other races: rare to casual winter visitors.

7.   Voice:

a.   All juncos have a musical trill for their song

b.   Call notes are varied, but the most common ones include a liquid dew-dew-dew and a sharp smack!

                             Juncos: L-R: Oregon M, dark Oregon F, pale Oregon F, Pink-sided, Gray-headed, Slate-colored


V.   “White-tailed” Sparrows

A.  Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Black stickpin

b.   “No-brainer” facial pattern

c.   Rounded white corners to contrasting black tail

2.   Status:  Common in open areas, particularly oak savannah habitats.

3.   Voice:

a.   Song: Variable and musical (almost towhee-like), interspersed with “snorts”.

b.   Call: Most distinctive is a warbler-like chink as the birds fly overhead 

B.   Lapland Longspur (Calcarius lapponicus)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Reddish areas on greater coverts

b.   Only outermost tail feather white

c.   Cheek more boldly outlined than Chestnut-collared

d.   Black smudging on breast (male)

2.   Status:  Rare winter vagrant, usually in agricultural areas with Horned Larks and pipits.

3.   Voice:  Most distinctive call is a short, dry rattle interspersed with teu notes.


 C.  Chestnut-collared Longspur (Calcarius ornatus)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Male shows black smudging on breast

b.   Distinctive “T” tail pattern

c.   Plainer face than Lapland

d.   White shoulder spot diagnostic but not always visible

2.   Status:  Rare winter vagrant, usually in agricultural areas with Horned Larks and pipits.

3.   Voice: Most distinctive flight call a liquid “kettle”.


D.  Vesper Sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Eyering; no real supercillium

b.   White outer tail feathers on brown tail evenly marked

c.   Streaked breast

2.   Status:  Winter visitor, uncommon in open grassy areas in higher elevations.

3.   Voice:   Unlikely to be heard in San Diego County; usually starts with two or three clear notes on the same pitch before launching into a more complicated song.



L-R: Dark-eyed Junco, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Lapland Longspur,  Vesper, Lark                T-B: Lapland NB M, Lapland F, Chestnut-collared F, Chestnut-collared NB M


VI.  Streaked Sparrows

A.  Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Generally has yellowish loral area

b.   From Vesper by strong supercillium, and lack of eyering and white outer tail feathers

c.   From Song by smaller size, shorter tail, and finer breast streaking

2.   “Belding’s” Savannah Sparrow

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  Much darker overall than nominate races

(2)  May or may not show yellowish lores

(3)  Very heavy streaking on breast

3.   “Large-billed” Sparrow

a.   Field Marks:

(1)  Back streaking very subdued

(2)  Noticeably larger bill

(3)  House Finch-colored overall

4.   Status:

a.   Migrant races fairly common in grasslands and in coastal areas

b.   Belding’s fairly common in salt marsh habitats

c.   Large-billed rare in coastal areas

5.   Voice:  Song, a buzzy tip-tip-tip PZEEEEEE chip!



     Savannah Sparrows (L-R: nominate, Belding's, Large-billed)                                         T-B: Nominate, Belding's, Large-billed


B.   Lincoln’s Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Smaller and duskier than Song

b.   Buffy malar stripe contrasts with gray face

c.   Buffy wash against finely streaked breast

2.   Status:  Fairly common winter visitor, but skulky; widespread but prefers brushy areas

3.   Voice:

a.   Song rarely heard in San Diego County, a surprisingly sonorous, burry quality. 

b.   Call notes very junco-like, but also has a bunting-like buzz.


C.  Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Facial pattern more contrasting than Lincoln’s

b.   Heavily streaked breast with central spot

c.   Longish tail; pumps when flying

2.   Status:  Common year-round in riparian areas.

3.   Voice:

a.   Song: generally starts with several short notes before launching into the “complex” section; rhythmically like Savannah, but bright and musical, not buzzy

b.   Call: a distinctive bark



                         Savannah (top) and Lincoln's (bottom)                                                                Savannah (top) and Vesper (bottom)



                         Savannah (left) and Vesper (right)                                                                        T-B: Savannah, Lincoln's, Song


D.  Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Relatively plain face

b.   Ochre-colored lower mandible

c.   Heavily streaked below

d.   Head and back grayer and contrast with more rufous body

e.   “Fat-billed” has a noticeably larger bill

2.   Status:  Fairly common winter visitor but skulky, usually in chaparral.

3.   Voice:

a.   Song (rarely heard in San Diego County) is rich and varied; usual vocalization is a sharp smack.

b.   “Fat-billed’s” call note is more California Towhee-like: a high teep!

             Fox Sparrows: T-B: Sooty, Fat-billed, Slate-colored, Red


E.   Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Large bill

b.   Heavily streaked below (male shows blackish on throat)

c.   Large buffy wing patch

d.   White tail tips

2.   Status:  Rare winter vagrant in agricultural fields and grasslands.

3.   Voice: Common call note is a mellow whistle.



                     NB Lark Bunting M (left), female (right)                                                        NB Lark Bunting M (top), female (bottom)


VII.     Ammodramus Sparrows

A.  Grasshopper Sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Flat-headed look

b.   Eyering and orangey loral area

c.   Yellow shoulder patch (not always visible)

d.   Lack of breast streaking

2.   Status:  Resident; uncommon and apparently decreasing in native grassland areas. 

3.   Voice:  Song begins with three short, descending notes, then follows with an explosive, buzzy zeeeeeeeeeee!  Often this last part is the only audible part of the song.


B.   Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow (Ammodramus nelsoni)

1.   Field Marks:

a.   Gray cheeks and nape contrast with rest of buffy face

b.   Marsh Wren-like streaking on back

c.   Fine streaking on buffy breast

2.   Status:  Annual vagrant in winter to coastal salt marshes



                                  Grasshopper (top) and Nelson's (bottom)                                                                        Grasshopper (top) and Savannah (bottom)

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