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Often commonplace in suburbs and metropolitan areas, sparrows are some of the most familiar wild birds.  Although often regarded as just one species, “sparrows” in fact consist of two different families, over a dozen genuses, and a multitude of species.  There are over thirty species of sparrow present in North America alone.  Most are primarily seed-eaters, and can often be found foraging on the ground.  Here are some you might see in California:

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

Golden Crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrows can be distinguished by a yellow stripe down the center of their foreheads bordered by black.  During wintertime however, this yellow is duller and less noticeable, and the bordering black fades to a gray-brown.  These sprightly little birds spend their winters in California, and return to Canada and parts of Alaska in the summer months to breed.  They are among some of the first birds to arrive on their wintering grounds, and some of the last to leave. In California, they inhabit shrubby lowland areas, disturbed and weedy areas, and city edges. Like most other sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows feed primarily off seeds.  In fact, they are an important destroyer of the seeds of many invasive and weedy plants!

White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)

White-Crowned Sparrow

Much more widespread than Golden-crowned Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows  winter throughout much of the United States and northern Mexico, and breed throughout northern and western Canada and most of Alaska.  They are  closely related and very similar in appearance to Golden-crowned Sparrows, but have a white forehead stripe in place of yellow.  Common backyard visitors, White-crowned Sparrows dwell in thickets, weedy fields, roadsides and disturbed areas, and agricultural areas.  Over summer, insects and other arthropods make up a large percent of this sparrow’s diet.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

One of the most abundant sparrows in North America, Song Sparrows are  year-round residents of California.  They are medium-sized Sparrows, with streaked brown and gray plumage and whitish underparts.  Habitat generalists, Song Sparrows occupy Chaparral, forests, woodlands, tidal marshes, desert scrub, lake edges, agricultural areas, grasslands, and suburbs.  Look for males singing from exposed perches in attempts to attract a mate or defend their territories.

Lark Sparrow (Chondestes grammacus)

Lark Sparrow 

Lark Sparrows are year-round residents of western California, with migratory populations breeding in the central United States and wintering in Mexico.  They can be distinguished by a bold facial pattern consisting of a white stripe down the center of  the forehead and around each eye, with a black line through each eye and brown patches surrounding the white.  They tend to favor open habitats, including grasslands, sagebrush, and open woodlands.

Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)

Dark-eyed Junco

At first glance, Dark-eyed Juncos do not seem to resemble other sparrows, mainly due to their distinctly different coloration.  However, their body shape and feeding habits  are indicative of their belonging to the family Emberizidae, the North American Sparrows.  Dark-eyed Juncos breed throughout Canada and Alaska, and spend their winters throughout the United States with resident populations in most of California.  Their color pattern varies depending on region.  Most often, they are slate gray with a white belly and undertail area, although in some areas such as Oregon they are of a more brown or peach color, with an almost black hood.  Look for Dark-eyed Juncos in open woodlands, shrublands, parks, fields, roadsides, or even in your own backyard.

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

House Sparrow

House Sparrows are the most widely distributed wild bird.  Native to Europe and Asia, they have been introduced to Australia, Africa, and the Americas.  Members of the Old World Sparrow family, Passeridae, House Sparrows are distantly related to the other sparrows of North America (family Emberizidae).  They are chunkier in appearance, with shorter tails and more rounded heads.  Other distinguishing features include rufous coloration on the wings and sides of the head, with a black patch near the beak extending to the eyes.  House Sparrows can be found year-round throughout pretty much all of the United States, and thrive near human habitation.  They are a familiar sight in cities, suburbs,and farmlands.

All photos by Sandor Havasi
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