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Whether you’re a casual backyard bird feeder or a dedicated birdwatcher, you’ll find plenty of feathered friends to observe in California. Sparrows may not be the flashiest or most colorful birds you’ll see in the Golden State, but they might be one of the most well-known. Here are 20 common types of sparrows you’ll find in California.
|Scientific name:||Spizella passerina|
|Length:||4.7 – 5.9 inches|
Chipping sparrows are most easily identified by the bright red caps on their heads, along with their dark eye stripe. The common birds are found throughout California at different times of the year. Northern California is their breeding range, while they are found in the central and southern parts of the state year-round.
Chipping sparrows winter in southeastern California. They are frequent guests at bird feeders and nest in small trees and shrubs. In wilderness areas, they live in open forests near grasslands.
|Scientific name:||Aimophilia ruficeps|
|Length:||5.1 – 5.9 inches|
These birds also have a reddish patch on top of their head but sport longer tails and a different facial pattern of dark throat stripes than the chipping sparrow. Rufous-crowned sparrows also have a more limited range in California. They are found primarily along the central and southern coast, with scattered populations inland.
The sparrows live in rocky, hillside habitats where they forage for seeds and nest in shrubs or on the ground. They don’t migrate or even fly much, preferring to run.
|Scientific name:||Spizella breweri|
|Length:||5.1 – 5.9 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.1 – 7.9 inches|
Brewer’s sparrows are found in southern and eastern California, depending on the time of year. They are slender birds with long tails and streaked grayish-brown feathers. Their habitat is primarily dry areas covered in sagebrush, especially during the breeding season.
They build their nests almost exclusively in the scrub foliage. In winter, the birds live in dry grasslands. Because their habitat is overwhelmingly dry, Brewer’s sparrows are adapted to survive for weeks without water. They eat insects plucked from branches and grass.
|Scientific name:||Pooecetes gramineus|
|Length:||5.1 – 6.3 inches|
Vesper sparrows are found in parts of southern and central California, with some breeding grounds also located in the northeastern corner of the state. Their name comes from their tendency to sing in the evening. They are slightly larger than the sparrows we’ve discussed and are brown-streaked with a white eye ring and long white tail feathers. They nest on the ground in fields and grasslands.
|Scientific name:||Chondestes grammacus|
|Length:||5.9 – 6.7 inches|
These large sparrows are identifiable by their unique head pattern and coloring. Lark sparrows have brown patches on the top and sides of their heads, with a dark mustache stripe and light stripe over the eye.
Another distinguishing mark is a black spot in the center of their white chest. They live primarily in grasslands and prairies throughout much of California, spending winters in brushy habitats. When courting, male lark sparrows perform a mating dance that can last up to 5 minutes!
|Scientific name:||Artemisiospiza belli|
The Bell’s sparrow is found almost exclusively in California and south into Baja California. They live in sagebrush habitats along the coast and the Mojave Desert. The birds have round heads and short beaks.
They are considered medium-sized sparrows with gray heads, dark brown backs, and dark spots on their white chest. Bell’s sparrows rarely fly but forage for seeds and insects along the ground. They nest in shrub plants and are closely related to an almost identical bird, the sagebrush sparrow.
|Scientific name:||Passerculus sandwichensis|
|Length:||4.3 – 5.9 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.9 – 8.7 inches|
The Savannah sparrow is found throughout California at various times of the year. They are medium-sized sparrows with brown streaks and short tails. They can be identified by a yellow patch near each eye. Savannah sparrows build their nests on the ground in grassy habitats.
They are one of the most common sparrow species across the United States. Despite their size, Savannah sparrows emit loud calls and are often heard singing through the summer months.
|Scientific name:||Ammodramus savannarum|
|Length:||4.3 – 4.5 inches|
These small sparrows are uncommon in California, as they breed in fields and pastures along the coast but are not found in the state year-round. Grasshopper sparrows are lightly colored with an obviously large beak for their size and flat heads.
They have an orange-yellow spot just in front of each eye. These sparrows nest and forage for insects (mostly grasshoppers) along the ground, choosing to run rather than fly. They have two distinct songs, both of which are quieter than many other sparrow species.
|Scientific name:||Passerella iliaca|
Fox sparrows are named for the reddish coloring displayed by many of the birds. However, they also come in other color variations, and the one found most commonly in California is known as “sooty.” Fox sparrows are dark brown with gray heads. They are bigger birds with round bodies found in much of California at various times of the year, wintering by the coast but spending the breeding season in the mountains. The sparrows live in forest habitats and dig through fallen leaves on the ground in search of insects.
|Scientific name:||Melospiza melodia|
|Length:||4.7 – 6.7 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.1 – 9.4 inches|
Song sparrows are probably the most commonly sighted species across North America, including California. They are red and gray-streaked along their head and back, with reddish stripes on their white chest.
Song sparrows in some parts of California may be slightly paler in tone. These birds are found throughout most of the state except in the southeastern corner. They live in open, wooded areas and nest in low shrubs. If you spot a small, striped bird singing away during the spring and summer months, it’s most likely a song sparrow.
|Scientific name:||Melospiza lincolnii|
|Length:||5.1 – 5.9 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.5 – 8.7 inches|
This petite sparrow is found across most of California, depending on the season. However, Lincoln’s sparrows are pretty secretive and spend most of their time under cover in wet, scrubby habitats. They are rarely spotted by humans who aren’t explicitly looking for them.
They are gray, brown, and buff-colored, with darker stripes on a light chest. When they raise their crown feathers, it looks like the Lincoln’s sparrow has a pointed head. They have a beautiful song, even if humans don’t often get the chance to appreciate it.
|Scientific name:||Zonotrichia albicollis|
|Length:||6.3 – 7.1 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.1 – 9.1 inches|
White-throated sparrows are primarily Canadian forest dwellers. But like so many inhabitants of colder regions, they spend their winters along the California coast. These birds display sharp, distinctive markings, especially on the face and neck.
Their heads are black and white striped, with a white throat and yellow spot just in front of the eyes. They are larger sparrows with long legs. Californians with backyard bird feeders will likely spot the white-throated sparrow visiting in the winter.
|Scientific name:||Zonotrichia leucophrys|
|Length:||5.9 – 6.3 inches|
|Wingspan:||8.3 – 9.4 inches|
White-crowned sparrows are found across California during winter and year-round in some coastal areas, often visiting backyard feeders. These grayish birds feature black and white striped heads and a small bright orange-pinkish beak. They prefer open scrub habitats or tangled fields, nesting on the ground and foraging for insects. White-crowned sparrows develop distinct song dialects depending on where they were born. Unlike many birds, male and female white-crowned sparrows sing.
|Scientific name:||Zonotrichia atricapilla|
|Length:||6 – 7 inches|
The golden-crowned sparrow spends winters in northern and coastal California, primarily in low shrub habitat. They are larger, gray sparrows with black-capped heads topped with a golden crown.
Because they breed in remote Canadian and Alaskan tundra, the birds are a bit of a mystery. They eat insects, buds, and seeds and have been known to raid human gardens in the spring. Golden-crowned sparrows are one of the first winter birds to arrive in California and the last to leave in the spring.
|Scientific name:||Passer domesticus|
|Length:||5.9 – 6.7 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.5 – 9.8 inches|
If you’ve eaten at an outdoor restaurant in California (or anywhere in the United States,) chances are you’ve spotted a house sparrow. They are not only one of the most common birds in the country, but their natural habitat is among humans.
House sparrows are city dwellers, making their nests in any man-made cavity they can find. Females are a plainer buff-brown color, while males have gray crowns, white faces, and a reddish-brown neck. The birds are not native to North America but were introduced from Europe in the mid-19th century.
|Scientific name:||Melospiza georgiana|
|Length:||4.7 – 5.9 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.1 – 7.5 inches|
Swamp sparrows are rare in California and only found in wetlands along the coastline. They are reddish-brown birds with gray faces and necks, red caps on their head, and dark eye stripes. The sparrows generally stay hidden in the marsh plants and scrubs of their preferred habitat, making them hard to spot even where they are more common. Swamp sparrows forage for insects, even sticking their heads into the water in search of food.
|Scientific name:||Junco hyemalis|
|Length:||5.5 – 6.3 inches|
|Wingspan:||7.1 – 9.8 inches|
Dark-eyed juncos are forest birds found throughout California at various times of the year. They are among the most common species in wooded habitats and are also frequent visitors to bird feeders, especially during the winter. While their coloring varies by location, the most common variation is dark with a white belly and white tail feathers. Dark-eyed juncos usually travel in flocks and make their presence known without question.
|Scientific name:||Amphispiza bilineata|
Black-throated sparrows are desert birds found year-round in Southern California, with a breeding range extending further north. They are easily recognized by their sharp gray-and-white head pattern and dark black throats. Black-throated sparrows nest in scrub plants and forage for insects along the desert floor. They will sometimes visit bird feeders but are otherwise hard to find in the wild. The birds maintain a vast territory during the breeding season.
|Scientific name:||Artemisiospiza nevadensis|
|Length:||5 – 6 inches|
Sagebrush sparrows are only found in the western mountains among scrub trees and sagebrush. They rely specifically on remote sagebrush patches for successful nesting, a portion of which takes place in California. Sagebrush sparrows also spend part of the winter in the southern desert areas of the state.
They are not flashy birds, featuring light brown and gray coloring. There is a dark stripe by the eye and a dark spot on the otherwise white chest. Sagebrush sparrows often return to the same nesting grounds each year and maintain some of the most extensive territories of any sparrow species.
|Scientific name:||Ammospiza nelsoni|
|Length:||4.3 – 5.1 inches|
|Wingspan:||6.5 – 7.9 inches|
Nelson’s sparrow is primarily found in the Midwest and along the East Coast of the United States. However, they are sometimes spotted along the California coast in winter. They are shy wetland birds, rarely sighted because they spend their time on the ground among thick marsh plants.
They are among the most colorful of sparrow species, with yellow-orange faces and a yellow stripe across the chest. This species is named after Edward William Nelson, an early 20th-century biologist who conducted field surveys in Death Valley, among other locations. They are closely related to another species, the Saltmarsh Sparrow.
Regardless of where you live in California, you’re likely to see or hear one of these 20 sparrow species. While the birds are abundant and some of the most widespread species in the country, you can help do your part to protect them by keeping your cat indoors.
Owned and stray outdoor cats are one of the biggest threats to wildlife and bird populations across the world. Keep the sparrows safe and your cat entertained by placing a bird feeder near a window instead.
Featured Image Credit: Jean van der Meulen, Pixabay
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Elizabeth Gray spent more than 20 years working as a veterinary nurse before stepping away to become a stay-at-home parent to her daughter. Now, she is excited to share her hard-earned knowledge (literally--she has scars) with our readers. Elizabeth lives in Iowa with her family, pet Husky and the worldʻs most patient cat. When not writing, she enjoys watching all sports but especially soccer, reading, and spending time outdoors with her family.
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