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 sparrows--and probably the most variable; The Birder's Handbook mentions 31 recognized subspecies. Sibley illustrates five. The biggest differences are in size and coloration. Generally speaking, Song Sparrow is brownish on the back and pale on the breast and the belly, but the most noticeable feature may be the bold dark stripes on the back, flanks, breast, and belly, with the boldest stripes on the breast often converging to suggest a central spot (which may be rather diffuse or sometimes only barely suggested). Sonoma County birds are typically striped in a very dark reddish brown--often appearing nearly black. East Coast birds are striped in rufous tones and look much more ruddy brown overall. The typical face pattern is (from top to bottom): Dark reddish brown at the crown, grey above the eye, brownish eyeline (often mostly or entirely behind the eye), grey again below the eye, with a fine, dark edge underneath, white, and then a very heavy dark line at the very bottom of the face that may begin to merge into the pattern of dark streaks on the breast. The greyish areas of the face can be quite grey, or much less so. A very fine grey or pale crown line is usually present but often not visible when the bird is viewed from the side. Rufous on the wings and tail. Legs and feet pinkish.

Several of the guide books refer to a typical pumping of the tail in flight, although I have never noticed it. Field guides also refer to the rounded tail of Song Sparrow as opposed to the notched tail of many other sparrow species, but, as the photographs here show, a Song Sparrow's tail can certainly appear notched, depending on the angle of view and how the bird is holding its tail feathers. The photos on this page are intended to show the Song Sparrow most common in Sonoma County (along with Savannah Sparrow, Fox Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Swamp Sparrow for comparison). The common Sonoma County subspecies is Melozpiza melodia gouldii (the Marin Song Sparrow), or Melospiza melodia samuelis (the San Pablo Song Sparrow) in the salty marshes just north of San Pablo Bay (that is, in the extreme south of Sonoma County) and in brackish areas along the Petaluma River. The San Pablo Bay subspecies is considered threatened.

Song Sparrow can be confusing simply because there are so many variations on the basic theme, but the facial pattern, the heavy streaking, and the central spot on the breast together should make identification possible. Most likely to be confused with Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis) or Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca), or possibly with Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) or Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana). Note that Song Sparrow favors low, brushy areas near woods and water. It's common in undergrowth along wooded streams and creeks. May be foraging in the undergrowth or perched on top singing, especially in the spring, when it may perch higher, in small trees. The song is worth learning. It usually begins with two to four clear notes (most commonly three) followed by a fairly complex pattern of musical and buzzy notes.

Savannah Sparrow has a shorter, much less musical, more lisping song. Song Sparrow is likely to be solitary. Savannah Sparrow favors open country with sparser, low brush for cover and may form small flocks, especially in the winter. Note Savannah Sparrow's overall cleaner, whiter appearance, with finer, more orderly striping than Song Sparrow and the distinctive yellow above and in front of the eye in Savannah Sparrow. Lincoln's Sparrow has a rather different facial pattern with a broader stripe of grey above the eye, streaking that tends to be still finer than that of Savannah Sparrow, and beige-grey coloring on the breast and sides. There is a somewhat angular look to the shape of the head. Lincoln's Sparrow may have a central breast spot, but it tends to be smaller and tighter than in Song Sparrow or Savannah Sparrow. It's wise to remember that the breast spot is highly variable in all the sparrow species that show it.

Fox Sparrow is a much larger, chunkier bird usually present in Sonoma County only in the winter (late September through late April). Fox Sparrow is darker and almost entirely lacks the markings on the back and face shown by Song Sparrow. It's spotting is bolder and more random. 

Compared with Song Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow is more distinctly rufous on the back, wings, and tail; it has more grey on the face and at the base of the neck; the facial pattern gives the impression of a darkish ear patch rather than a series of stripes of color; Swamp Sparrow is very delicately streaked, and it is more brownish grey on the breast, flanks and belly. Swamp Sparrow favors wet, marshy areas and tends to be a skulker (which makes it very difficult to photograph!). Note also that Lincoln's Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow are winter birds in Sonoma County, while Song Sparrow and Savannah Sparrow are present all year.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 116

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 472, 480

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 166

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 422

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 478

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 576

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 337

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 246-241 (general notes on sparrow ID), p. 249

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 419-433 (general notes on sparrow ID), pp. 423, 431

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 346

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 300

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 336

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 324

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 422

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 389

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



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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: Savannah Sparrow

Ellis Creek Water Treatment Facility, February 11, 2012

Song Sparrow, Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility

January 7, 2010

Song Sparrow, Bodega Bay

September 7, 2011

For comparison: Lincoln's Sparrow

Nagasawa Park, Santa Rosa, January 11, 2010

For comparison: Swamp Sparrow

Ellis Creek Water Recycling Facility, Petaluma

October 11, 2009

Song Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, April 16, 2011

For comparison: Fox Sparrow

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, November 26, 2011

Song Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, January 21, 2012

Song Sparrow

Melospiza melodia

1995-2015 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated December 24, 2015

EBird-reported occurrence in Sonoma County