A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


One of our most common and prettiest sparrows. Overall gives a clean, whitish impression with light, clear streaking on the breast that may be concentrated in a central spot. Most likely to be confused with Song Sparrow, but the yellow just behind the bill (at the lores) and over the eye is fairly distinctive. Note, however, that there is quite a lot of variation in the amount of yellow exhibited by Savannah Sparrows, and the birds can be quite variable in other respects as well. The bird in the photo above is a fairly typical example for Sonoma County (photographed at Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility). Look also for the fine pale line at the crown, more easily visible in the photo below.

Song Sparrow has a rather different facial pattern with considerable gray. Learning to reliably identify the (also) rather variable Song Sparrow is a very good way to avoid confusion with Savannah Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow may also be confused with White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) because of that bird's yellow lores, but White-throated Sparrow lacks streaking. Note also that White-throated Sparrow is an altogether less common bird in Sonoma County. Savannah Sparrow is common in open areas with low brush. Often seen perched atop low bushes or foraging on the ground. Song Sparrow prefers more brushy areas with some tree cover--although the species overlap. Savannah Sparrow may form small, loose flocks in the winter months. Builds nests on the ground, well hidden in vegetation. May do a distraction display during breeding season to draw predators away from the nest.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 115

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 465

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 164

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 420

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 472

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, p. 604-605

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 574

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 334

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 427

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 354

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 246-251 (general notes on sparrow ID)

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 419-433 (general notes on sparrow ID), p. 428

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 252-253

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 68

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 302

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 334

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 326

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 674-675

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 417

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 396

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Savannah Sparrow



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


For comparison: Song Sparrow

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, January 21, 2012

Note extensive gray on face; lack of yellow lores; heavier, somewhat blurry striping

Savannah Sparrow, Santa Rosa

An unusually yellow-faced individual

Savannah Sparrow, Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, Petaluma, February 11, 2012

Savannah Sparrow

Passerculus sandwichensis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 24, 2013

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County