This guide will help you identify 29 species of sparrows by sight and sound that can be spotted in California. Also, find out what time of year to spot them and some fun facts.
It is worth taking the time to get to know these energetic little songbirds that you will frequently spot and hear as they are fun to watch. Juncos and Towhees are also sparrows, so they are included in this guide.
Sparrows are often described as ‘little brown jobs’ by birders so it is obvious that it can be a challenge for even an experienced birder to recognize them.
Many sparrows have distinctive head markings and often migrate, so you can discount them at certain times of the year. These two pieces of information help with identification and are included in this guide.
Sparrows mainly eat seeds and insects, and they will often come to backyard feeders. Find out the other species of birds that regularly visit California and print a free ID chart.
This guide will help you identify the types of sparrows spotted in California according to avibase and uses data collected from bird watchers on ebird to give real information about when these birds can be spotted.
When to Spot Sparrows in California
Knowing when you are most likely to spot sparrows can help reduce the guesswork with these similar-looking birds. This guide sorts these birds by when you are most likely to spot them.
Sparrows in California all year:
- California Towhee
- Song Sparrow
- Dark-eyed Junco
- Spotted Towhee
- House Sparrow
- Lark Sparrow
- Chipping Sparrow
- Rufous-crowned Sparrow
- Bell’s Sparrow
- Black-throated Sparrow
- Abert’s Towhee
Sparrows in California in winter:
- White-crowned Sparrow
- Golden-crowned Sparrow
- Savannah Sparrow
- Fox Sparrow
- Lincoln’s Sparrow
- White-throated Sparrow
- Vesper Sparrow
- Sagebrush Sparrow
Sparrows in California in summer:
- Green-tailed Towhee
- Brewer’s Sparrow
- Grasshopper Sparrow
- Black-chinned Sparrow
Sparrows in California during migration:
- Clay-colored Sparrow
- Swamp Sparrow
Other Sparrows in California:
- Harris’s Sparrow
- Lark Bunting
- Nelson’s Sparrow
- American Tree Sparrow
Identifying Sparrow’s Songs
If you learn a few of the songs of sparrows by listening to the audio recordings in the guide, it will help, especially with some of the more distinctive sparrow songs. Such as White-throated Sparrows that sing long slow notes that change pitch and sound like a person whistling.
However, Golden-crowned Sparrows sing a few slow notes that decrease in pitch. Also, how about the strange buzz of the Grasshopper Sparrow? Have you heard them?
Sparrows in California All Year
California Towhees are residents of California all year. They do not migrate, and they appear in 31% of summer checklists and 27% of winter checklists for the state.
California Towhees are large, brown, plump sparrows with long tails, short wings, and a rusty patch under their tails.
- Melozone crissalis
- Length: 8.3-9.8 in (21-25 cm)
- Weight: 1.3-2.4 oz (37-67 g)
- Wingspan: 11.4 in (29 cm)
California Towhees are only found in the coastal chaparral scrub areas of California, Oregon, and Baja California. They will also visit backyards, sit on fenceposts, and chase their reflections in car mirrors or windows.
California Towhees’ diets are mostly seeds from grasses and herbs, but they also eat berries such as elderberry, coffeeberry, and acorns.
California Towhee sounds: The males sing a simple song that consists of a short, fast trill at a couple of different pitches.
Nests of California Towhees are pretty low down in shrubs or small trees and are made from twigs and grass woven together. The inside of the nest is lined with softer material, such as animal hair and soft fluffy seeds.
They lay up to five eggs, and these take up to two weeks to hatch and at least a week for the young to fledge.
Attract Califonia Towhees to your yard with millet on-ground feeders and plant native berry plants.
Fun fact: California Towhees will attack their reflections in mirrors and windows.
Song Sparrows can be spotted all year in California. They are recorded in 28% of summer checklists and 24% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
Song sparrows are not as remarkable looking as other backyard birds, but these predominantly brown-streaked birds use their almost constant song to attract mates in spring and summer.
- Melospiza melodia
- Length: 4.7-6.7 in (12-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-1.9 oz (12-53 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-9.4 in (18-24 cm)
Song Sparrow live all year in northern US States. Those that breed in Canada migrate to southern US states for winter.
You can find Song Sparrows in open, shrubby, and wet areas, often perched on a low shrub singing. They are often found at backyard feeders.
Song Sparrows eat a wide variety of insects and plants, including beetles, caterpillars, midges, spiders, and earthworms. They will also eat buckwheat, sunflower seeds, raspberries, wild cherries, blackberries, wheat, and rice.
Song Sparrow sounds: They make a series of unconnected buzzing, trills, and notes rather than a melodious song. They also make sharp alarm calls and chatter calls when in groups.
Nests of Song Sparrows are made from grass and other plant material woven together and lined with soft grass and hair. They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and just under two weeks for the young to leave the nest.
Attract Song Sparrows to your backyard by putting black oil sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and nyjer on platform feeders.
Fun fact: A study has found that Song Sparrows mix their playlist of songs, so they do not repeat and potentially bore prospective females!
Dark-eyed Juncos stay in California all year. They are recorded in 21% of summer checklists and 25% of winter checklists.
Dark-eyed Juncos are sparrows that are different a color depending on the state. They are generally slate-colored in the east and black, white, and brown in the west.
- Junco hyemalis
- Length: 5.5-6.3 in (14-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-1.1 oz (18-30 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-9.8 in (18-25 cm)
Dark-eyed Juncos remain resident all year in the northeastern and western US states and the Appalachian Mountains. Those that breed in Canada and Alaska migrate south in winter to the United States.
You can find Dark-eyed Junco in open and partially wooded areas, often on the ground, and they are common across the continent. They mainly feed on seeds but will also eat some insects.
Dark-eyed Junco sounds: A simple song of a series of fast, high-pitched even notes.
Nests of Dark-eyed Juncos are usually on the ground, hidden in vegetation, woven from plant material, and lined with grass and hair. They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and two weeks to fledge.
Attract Dark-eyed Juncos to backyard feeders with a variety of seeds such as black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, millet, and peanuts. Platform feeders or seeds scattered on the ground are best.
Fun fact: Dark-eyed Juncos are known as snowbirds as they arrive in the United States in winter.
Spotted Towhees are residents of California all year, and they are recorded in 26% of summer checklists and 18% of winter checklists.
Spotted Towhees are large sparrows that are black on the head, throat, and back in the males and brown in the females. Both males and females have reddish-brown sides and white bellies, with white spots on their wings and back and long tails.
- Pipilo maculatus
- Length: 6.7-8.3 in (17-21 cm)
- Weight: 1.2-1.7 oz (33-49 g)
- Wingspan: 11.0 in (28 cm)
Spotted Towhees live in western US states, but those inland in the north migrate south to Texas after breeding down.
Spotted Towhees can be found on the ground in dense tangles of shrubs scratching around for insects, including beetles, crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, wasps, and bees. They also eat acorns, berries, and seeds.
Spotted Towhee sounds: Songs are short notes followed by fast trills.
Nests of Spotted Towhees are usually on or near the ground and made from leaves, stems, and bark lined with softer material. They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and a further ten days for the young to fledge.
Attract Spotted Towhees to your yard if you leave overgrown borders, and they will visit platform feeders or ground feeders for Black Oil Sunflower seeds, Hulled Sunflower seeds, Cracked Corn, Millet, and Milo.
Fun fact: Spotted Towhee males spend most of their mornings singing when trying to attract a mate.
House Sparrows are an introduced species in California that can be spotted here all year. They do not migrate and occur in 17% of summer checklists and 13% of winter checklists for the state.
House Sparrows are another introduced species that have done very well and are now one of the most common birds in North America.
They have gray and brown heads and white cheeks, with a black bib. Their backs are black and brown, and their bellies are gray. Female House sparrows are browner all over and lack the black bib.
- Passer domesticus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in (15-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.1 oz (27-30 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-9.8 in (19-25 cm)
House Sparrows live in the US and southern Canada all year.
You can find House Sparrows near houses and buildings, and they can be pretty tame and may even eat out of your hand. However, they can cause problems for native birds as they do not migrate and get the best nesting sites before native birds arrive.
House Sparrows eat mostly grain and seed as well as discarded food. They can be considered a pest because they are non-native, but they are found in backyards even if you do not feed them.
House Sparrow sounds: Their song is a simple series of notes.
Nests of House Sparrows are hidden away in small openings in buildings or dense vegetation or nest boxes. Nests are made from dry grass and plant materials and lined with feathers and other soft materials.
They lay up to eight eggs and as many as four broods a year. Their eggs take under two weeks to hatch and a further two weeks for the chicks to fledge.
Attract House Sparrows to your backyard feeders with most kinds of birdseed, including millet, corn, and sunflower seeds.
Fun fact: As well as North America, House Sparrows have been introduced to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Lark Sparrows are spotted in California all year, and they are recorded in 2% of summer and winter checklists.
The small Lark Sparrow has highly-distinctive features. It has a brown and white striped crown, brown-streaked back, white belly, and brown, white-edged tail.
- Chondestes grammacus
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in (15-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.2 oz (24-33 g)
- Wingspan: 11.0 in (28 cm)
Lark Sparrows breed in most US states, except towards the east. They also breed in some southern Canadian Provinces. Winter is spent in Mexico, but birds along the Pacific Coast, mainly in California and some southern states, remain all year.
You can find Lark Sparrows on the bare, open ground like grasslands, but they also favor trees and pastures with a few scattered shrubs.
Lark Sparrows will feast on many insects like grasshoppers, caterpillars, and beetles in summer and mostly seeds, grasses, and weeds during the winter.
Lark Sparrow sounds: The males’ song is a happy series of whistles, buzzes, and churr sounds.
Nests of Lark Sparrows are built by both males and females. The male will place twigs at the site, but females will do the actual construction. The nests can be on the ground, in low trees, and even in crevices in rocky cliffs.
The female creates an open cup made with grass, weeds, animal hair, and twigs. There are up to six eggs in a nest, and they take around twelve days to hatch and an additional ten days for the young to leave the nest.
Attract Lark Sparrows to your backyard with their favorite food, seeds.
Fun fact: Male Lark Sparrows take 5 minutes to dance during their courting ritual.
Chipping Sparrows can be seen in California all year. They spend the breeding season mostly in the north of the state, and they are recorded in 3% of summer checklists. However, some stay all year and occur in 1% of winter checklists.
Chipping Sparrows are slender, long-tailed birds with a grayish belly and brown and black-streaked back, with a rusty crown and black eye line. In winter, the colors are more subdued.
- Spizella passerina
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz (11-16 g)
- Wingspan: 8.3 in (21 cm)
Chipping Sparrows spend their summer breeding in the US and Canada before flying to Mexico and Florida for winter. Some remain all year in the southern US states.
You can find Chipping Sparrows in small flocks on the ground, often in woods and parks with trees.
Chipping Sparrow sounds: They get their name from the sharp ‘chip’ call they make. Their distinctive song is a stuttering trill.
Nests of Chipping Sparrows are off the ground, hidden in trees or shrubs, and are built by females. The nests are made from dried grass and small roots, but they are very basic and not very dense.
Chipping Sparrows lay up to seven eggs and up to three broods a year. The eggs take around two weeks to hatch, and the young fledge in under two weeks.
Attract Chipping Sparrows to your backyard with seeds or cracked corn on open feeders such as hoppers or platforms.
Fun fact: A group of Chipping Sparrows is known as a tournament.
Rufous-crowned Sparrows are residents of California all year. They do not migrate and are recorded in around 1% of summer and winter checklists for the state.
Rufous-crowned Sparrows are large sparrows that are gray underneath and streaked brown on the back. They have reddish-brown crowns and white and dark stripes on their faces.
- Aimophila ruficeps
- Length: 5.9-6.3 in (15-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.7 oz (16-21 g)
Rufous-crowned Sparrows are resident all year in southwestern US states.
You can find Rufous-crowned Sparrows on the ground in dry, rocky hillsides that have vegetation for them to hide. In spring, when males are singing, is the best time to spot them.
They eat insects in spring and summer and fallen seeds and other plant material in winter.
Rufous-crowned Sparrow sounds:
Nests of Rufous-crowned Sparrows are on the ground, hidden in vegetation, and built by females from dried grass and some twigs. They lay up to five eggs which take around two weeks to hatch and a further nine days for the young to leave the nest.
Fun Fact: Rufous-crowned Sparrows distract predators from nests by pretending to have a broken wing or by pretending to fall from a branch.
Bell’s Sparrows can be spotted in California all year.
Bell’s Sparrows are medium-sized sparrows that have a gray head with a white patch in front of the bill. They also have a black outline on their bill, a white eye ring, a black vertical stripe down their throat, a gray back, and a white chest and belly.
Their long, pointy tails are often held upright. Males and Females look the same while Juveniles are brown all over.
- Artemisiospiza belli
- Length: 6.25 in (16 cm)
- Weight: 0.7 oz (20 g)
- Wingspan: 8.25 in (21 cm)
Bell’s Sparrows live in southwestern US states and northwestern Mexico all year.
You can find Bell’s Sparrows in sagebrush habitats which is why they are often misidentified as Sagebrush Sparrows. They are residents of coastal shrubby areas, saltbush, and open, dry habitats.
Bell’s Sparrows usually forage on the ground. They have a habit of scurrying under shrubs for protection. They feed on seeds from shrubs and grasses. They also eat many kinds of insects, such as grasshoppers and beetles.
Bell’s Sparrow song:
Nests of Bell’s Sparrows can be found low to the ground. They are a loose cup of sagebrush, twigs, grass, and bark lined with feathers and fur. The female lays around five eggs that she takes care of for about sixteen days until they hatch. Males defend their territory by singing from a dry perch.
Fun Fact: In 2014, Bell’s Sparrow has been proven as a separate species from the Sage Sparrow after 115 years of debate. DNA results from these two birds finally ended the discussion.
Black-throated Sparrows are mainly seen in California from March to May, but they can be spotted here all year in southern California.
Black-throated Sparrows are one of the most easily recognized sparrows with their distinctive black throat and two bright white stripes on each side of their gray heads. The rest of them is pale underneath and grayish-brown on the back.
- Amphispiza bilineata
- Length: 4.7-5.5 in (12-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz (11-15 g)
- Wingspan: 7.7 in (19.5 cm)
Black-throated Sparrows are sparrows of southwestern US states. Those that breed further north in their range migrate, but those in the south and Mexico remain all year.
You can find Black-throated Sparrows on the ground in open areas in canyons and desert scrub. They eat insects in summer and fallen seeds in winter.
Black-throated Sparrow sounds: The males’ song is a mix of some low notes, followed by a buzz and then a trill. The song is quite distinctive once you hear it a few times.
Nests of Black-throated Sparrows are low down in shrubs and made from desert plant material made into a cup shape and lined with soft grass and animal hair.
They lay up to five eggs, which take up to two weeks to hatch and a further ten days for the young to leave the nest.
Attract Black-throated Sparrows to your backyard with black oil sunflower seeds.
Fun fact: Black-throated Sparrows do not drink water during the hot desert summer and instead get all their moisture from the insects they eat.
Abert’s Towhees do not migrate and can be spotted in the south of California all year.
Abert’s Towhees are large grayish-brown sparrows, about the size of a robin, with rusty colors under their tail.
- Melozone aberti
- Length: 8.3-9.1 in (21.2-23.1 cm)
- Weight: 1.5-1.9 oz (42.5-54.9 g)
- Wingspan: 10.4-11.6 in (26.5-29.5 cm)
They are found on the ground in dry habitats in dense undergrowth by desert streams and riverbeds in a very small area predominantly in southwestern Arizona.
Abert’s Towhees forage for insects such as beetles, ants, caterpillars, cicadas, and grasshoppers. They will also eat some seeds, especially grasses, in winter.
Abert’s Towhees sounds: Male Abert’s Towhees’ song often starts with a few short notes and then speeds up.
Nests of Abert’s Towhees are built in dense vegetation about five feet above the ground. The nest is made from leaves and bark, and grass.
They lay up to four eggs, and these take around two weeks to hatch and a further two weeks for the young to leave the nest. After that, however, the parents look after the young for another month.
Attract Abert’s Towhees to your yard by adding a water feature such as a birdbath and adding native plants. They will also visit ground feeders for seed.
Fun fact: Abert’s Towhees have one of the smallest ranges of any bird in North America.
Sparrows in California in Summer
Green-tailed Towhees are spotted in California during the breeding season and occur in 2% of summer checklists. They are more commonly seen from mid-April to mid-October, but a few hang around all year.
Green-tailed Towhees are large sparrows but small for towhees. They are gray with olive-green wings, backs, and tails, and they have a red crown.
- Pipilo chlorurus
- Length: 7.25 in (18.4 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.4 oz (21.5-39.4 g)
Green-tailed Towhees breed in western US states and migrate to southwestern US states and Mexico for winter. They are common in the mountainous west in summer.
You can find Green-tailed Towhees on the ground in dense shrubby vegetation in summer and desert grasslands and thickets, often near streams, in winter. They eat seeds, insects, and berries.
Green-tailed Towhee sounds: Their song is a pleasant series of whistles and slight buzzing.
Nests of Green-tailed Towhees are low in dense vegetation and are built by females from twigs, bark, and other plant material and lined with soft grass and animal hair.
They lay up to five eggs which take just under two weeks to hatch and around a further two weeks for the young to leave the nest.
Fun fact: Female Green-tailed Towhees distract potential predators by quietly leaving the nest and then running around with their tails raised near the nest predator.
Brewer’s Sparrows are more commonly spotted during summer in California, from mid-March until October, but a few stay all year.
Brewer’s Sparrows are gray underneath and streaked brown on their backs. They have long tails with a notch at the end and small bills. Brewer’s Sparrows are the smallest sparrow in North America.
- Spizella breweri
- Length: 5.1-5.9 in (13-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz (11-14 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-7.9 in (18-20 cm)
Brewer’s Sparrows breed in western US states and western Canada and migrate south for winter to southwestern US states and Mexico. They are very common sparrows in their range.
You can find Brewer’s Sparrows in arid sagebrush foraging for insects, such as caterpillars, grasshoppers, and spiders. In winter, they will also eat seeds.
Brewer’s Sparrow sounds: Their song is a buzzing sound that often descends and slows down.
Nests of Brewer’s Sparrows are built by females in shrubs from dry grass. They lay up to five eggs which take around eleven days to hatch and around a further eight days for the young to leave the nest.
Fun fact: Brewer’s Sparrows are small but mighty, and they will mob and chase predators away from their nests.
Grasshopper Sparrows are spotted during the breeding season in California. They are more commonly seen in the north of the state from April to July.
Grasshopper Sparrows are tiny birds with light and dark brown streaking and a distinctive orange or yellow stripe above their eye. They have short tails, large bills, and pale bellies.
- Ammodramus savannarum
- Length: 4.3-4.5 in (10.8-11.5 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-0.7 oz (14-20 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9 in (20 cm)
Grasshopper Sparrows breed in central and eastern US states, California’s coast, and parts of northwestern US states. They spend winter in southeastern US states, Mexico, and the Caribbean.
You can find Grasshopper Sparrows on the ground in grassland and prairies or other open areas hunting for grasshoppers and other insects and spiders. In winter, they mostly eat fallen seeds.
Grasshopper Sparrow sounds: The buzzy insect-like song of the Grasshopper Sparrow is how they get their name.
Nests of Grasshopper Sparrows are on the ground in vegetation. They are made out of grasses and plant material, and they create a roof by weaving surrounding stalks and creating an entrance on the side.
They lay up to seven eggs four times during the breeding season. The eggs take up to two weeks to hatch and a further week or so for the young to leave the nest.
Fun Fact: Grasshopper Sparrows violently shake their grasshopper prey to remove the large legs so that they can feed the bodies to their young.
Black-chinned Sparrows are not very common in California, but they can mostly be spotted in the south of the state during summer, from April to June.
Black-chinned Sparrows are plain and mainly gray overall but with brown backs and wings. Males have the black patch on their throat, but the females and non-breeding males don’t. Their bills are pink, which contrasts with their gray heads, and makes them easier to spot.
- Spizella atrogularis
- Length: 15 cm (5.75 in)
- Weight: 11 g (0.4 oz)
- Wingspan: 23 cm (9 in)
Black-chinned Sparrows breed in southwestern US states and migrate south to Mexico for winter.
You can find Black-chinned Sparrows in arid, desert-like environments. They prefer to live in remote and rocky areas with sagebrush, pine-juniper vegetation, and other brushes and scrubs. They may move south of their breeding locations in winter, usually to lower elevations.
Black-chinned Sparrows spend much of their time foraging for seeds on the ground and under shrubs. They feed on insects during the summer and more grains and seeds during the winter. They may capture insects while flying.
Black-chinned Sparrow song:
Nests of Black-chinned Sparrows are found near the ground and built within a dense shrub. They are made of grass, weeds, rootlets, and yucca fibers and made soft with hair and feathers. There may be as many as five eggs per nest, and they take about a week to hatch. It takes as long as fifteen days for them to learn how to fly, and in the meantime, their parents continue to care for them until they do.
Fun Fact: Black-chinned Sparrows are on the list of protected species by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Their habitat is endangered, and their nests are highly-susceptible to predation.
Sparrows in California in Winter
White-crowned Sparrows are the most frequently spotted sparrows in California during winter and appear in 44% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state.
They are more commonly seen from September to April, but some hang around all year and appear in 6% of summer checklists.
White-crowned Sparrows are large grayish sparrows with long tails, small bills, and bold black and white stripes on their heads.
- Zonotrichia leucophrys
- Length: 5.9-6.3 in (15-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.0 oz (25-28 g)
- Wingspan: 8.3-9.4 in (21-24 cm)
White-crowned Sparrows breed in Alaska and arctic Canada before heading south to the lower 48 and Mexico for winter. However, some may remain along the Pacific Coast and the mountainous west all year.
You can find White-crowned Sparrows in weedy fields, along roadsides, forest edges, and in yards foraging for seeds of weeds and grasses or fruit such as elderberries and blackberries.
White-crowned Sparrow sounds: The males’ song is a clear whistle, followed by a series of chaotic whistles and finishing with a buzz. Calls are usually short and sharp. Females rarely call or sing.
Nests of White-crowned Sparrows are made from twigs, grass, moss, and pine needles, often low to the ground in shrubs or on the ground in the tundra. They lay up to seven eggs, which take up to two weeks to hatch and around nine days for the chicks to fledge.
Attract White-crowned Sparrows to your backyard with sunflower seeds, and they will also eat seeds dropped by other birds at the feeders.
Fun fact: Young White-crowned Sparrows take a further week or two to learn to fly after leaving the nest.
Golden-crowned Sparrows are most commonly seen in California from September to May. They are the fifth most commonly spotted sparrows here during winter and are recorded in 22% of checklists at this time.
Golden-crowned Sparrows are grayish-brown underneath and streaked brown on the back. Their heads have a black crown and a bright-yellow forehead.
The colors are duller and brown on the crown in winter, and the yellow forehead is also duller.
- Zonotrichia atricapilla
- Length: 5.9-7.1 in (15-18 cm)
- Weight: 1.1-1.2 oz (30-33 g)
Golden-crowned Sparrows breed in Alaska and western Canada before migrating to the West Coast for winter.
You can find Golden-crowned Sparrow in weedy fields scratching for seeds such as dock, sumac, and geranium. They also eat fruit such as apples, grapes, elderberry, and olives. Insects also make up some of their diets, such as ants, beetles, butterflies, and termites.
Golden-crowned Sparrows sounds: Their song is a sad, slow series of whistles that decrease in pitch.
Nests of Golden-crowned Sparrows are usually on the ground and made from twigs, moss, and leaves. They are lined with softer material, such as animal hair, grass, and feathers.
They lay around four eggs, which take just under two weeks to hatch and a further ten days for the young to fledge.
Attract Golden-crowned Sparrows to your backyard with seeds on ground feeders or plant native plants that fruit.
Fun fact: The gold crown of Golden-crowned Sparrows shows how dominant they are, with larger crowns showing more dominance. This helps to reduce fights amongst males.
Savannah Sparrows spend the winter in California and are most commonly spotted from mid-September until January. However, some can be spotted all year. They appear in 3% of summer checklists and 9% of winter checklists.
If you get close enough to a Savannah Sparrow, you will see this brown bird has a distinctive yellow patch by the eye. They also have short tails and a streaky brown coloring.
- Passerculus sandwichensis
- Length: 4.3-5.9 in (11-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-1.0 oz (15-28 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-8.7 in (20-22 cm)
Savannah Sparrows breed in Canada and the US before migrating to southern US states and Mexico for winter.
You can find Savannah Sparrows on the ground in open areas, such as grassland, foraging for insects and spiders in the breeding season, and seeds in the winter.
Savannah Sparrow sounds: An almost rushed sounding song which is a few fast notes followed by a buzzing trill.
Nests of Savannah Sparrows are on or near the ground and made from grass. They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and a further one or two weeks for the young to fledge.
These birds do not regularly visit feeders, but they may visit your yard if you keep brush piles, have long grass, and live near fields.
Fun fact: Although they are one of the most common songbirds in North America, they are considered a threatened species by the ICUN.
Although some can be spotted all year, Fox Sparrows are more commonly spotted during winter, from October to March. They are recorded in 2% of summer checklists and 8% of winter checklists.
Although some species are more gray or dark brown, the Fox Sparrow is aptly named after its fox-red coloring. Its reddish streaks are particularly obvious in its chest area. It is a chunky bird compared to other sparrows.
There are four different color and appearance variations in Fox Sparrows. Red Fox Sparrows are found in eastern areas, and darker ‘sooty’ Fox Sparrows are found along the Pacific Coast. Thick-billed Fox Sparrows are found in California, and Slate-colored Fox Sparrows are found in western US states.
- Passerella iliaca
- Length: 5.9-7.5 in (15-19 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.6 oz (26-44 g)
- Wingspan: 10.5-11.4 in (26.7-29 cm)
Fox Sparrows migrate and breed in the north and west of Canada, Alaska, and down as far as California in the western US.
They spend the winter in southeastern US states and along the Pacific coast. Some remain all year on Canada’s Pacific coast, and they can be seen during migration in central and northeastern US states.
You can find Fox Sparrows in wooded areas, undergrowth, and brush. In the winter, they migrate to similar areas, even in well-vegetated suburbs and parks. You may observe them kicking up leaf litter in the air in search of food on the ground.
Insects and seeds are a common diet of Fox Sparrows. At times, they may also eat berries and grasses and crustaceans and marine animals if they’re near the beach.
Fox Sparrow sounds: Males sing a pleasant series of whistles and buzzy notes.
Nests of Fox Sparrow are hidden under dense, low shrubs. They may also build them in low trees but not more than eight feet above the ground. The nest is covered with grass, weeds, and moss but lined with dry grass. For those above ground, twigs are used to toughen up the nest’s walls.
They lay two to five eggs, which take about two weeks to hatch. The young may leave the nest within eleven days of hatching.
Attract Fox Sparrows to your backyard with small seeds and berries and low native shrubs.
Fun fact: The female Fox Sparrow can build a nest in a flash. They can start a nest at sunrise and finish it by dusk!
Lincoln’s Sparrows can be spotted wintering in California and appear in 6% of winter checklists. They are most commonly spotted from September to April, but a few can be spotted all year.
Lincoln’s Sparrows are medium-sized sparrows, mainly gray in color and with streaks of brown across their wings and chest and white bellies. Their heads may look pointed when they raise their crown feathers. Its eyering is buffy and with a gray eyebrow area and dark eye line.
- Melospiza lincolnii
- Length: 5.1-5.9 in (13-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.7 oz (17-19 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in (19-22 cm)
Lincoln’s Sparrows breed in Canada and parts of western US states and migrate to southern US states, the Pacific Coast, and Mexico for winter. They can be seen during migration in the rest of the US.
You can find Lincoln’s Sparrow mostly in densely-covered shrubs and thickets, particularly near streams and wet or damp areas. They migrate to tropical but humid forests during the winter.
Lincoln’s Sparrows mostly eat weeds and grasses during the winter. During the breeding season, they will eat insects like spiders, ants, and caterpillars, but they still feed plants to their young.
Lincoln’s Sparrow sounds: Their song is a fast trill of notes and some buzzes that is one of the most tuneful of all the sparrows.
Nest of Lincoln’s Sparrows are built by females on the ground, protected and screened by thick shrubs. The nests are lined with moss or grass, and they lay around four eggs.
The eggs take up to two weeks to hatch, and the young leave the nest in under two weeks after hatching. Their flying skills improve fast, and by the 6th day, they can fly more than ten meters.
Fun fact: Lincoln’s Sparrows are very secretive birds and are not often seen but can be recognized by their sweet song.
White-throated Sparrows are winter birds in California and occur in 1% of checklists at this time. They are most commonly spotted from October until April.
White-throated Sparrows have a distinctive black and white striped head, bright white throat, and yellow between the eye and bill. Their backs are brown, and underneath is gray. There are two color differences with birds having either tan-striped or white-striped heads.
- Zonotrichia albicollis
- Length: 6.3-7.1 in (16-18 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.1 oz (22-32 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-9.1 in (20-23 cm)
White-throated Sparrows are migratory birds, breeding mainly in Canada before heading south in winter to eastern and southern US states and the Pacific Coast.
You can find White-throated Sparrows on the ground in forests and woods and along the edges of wooded areas, often in large flocks.
White-throated Sparrows eat mainly seeds of grasses and weeds as well as fruits such as grape, sumac, mountain ash, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. They will also eat many insects from the forest floor, especially in summer.
White-throated Sparrow sounds: Their distinctive whistle is a few long, slow notes that change pitch. They can sound like a person whistling.
Nests of White-throated Sparrows are built by females, usually on the ground or low to the ground, in dense vegetation. They are made from moss and twigs, lined with softer material such as grass and animal hair.
They lay up to six eggs, which take around two weeks to hatch and a further week to two weeks for the young to fledge.
Attract White-throated Sparrows to your backyard feeders with millet and black oil sunflower seeds on platform feeders.
Fun fact: White-throated Sparrows always breed with the opposite color morph, either tan-striped or white-striped heads.
Vesper Sparrows are more frequently seen in California during the winter from September to March.
Vesper Sparrows are quite large sparrows that are mostly brown on the back, with white streaks and white bellies.
- Pooecetes gramineus
- Length: 5.1-6.3 in (13-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.7-1.0 oz (20-28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.4 in (24 cm)
Vesper Sparrows spend the summer breeding in the northern half of the US, southern Canada, and down into southwestern US states. Then, they migrate to southern US states and Mexico for winter.
You can find Vesper Sparrows on the ground in open grasslands and weedy fields and meadows. They eat seeds of grasses and weeds and some insects and spiders.
Vesper Sparrow sounds: Males start with a few low whistles followed by a series of rising and falling trills.
Nests of Vesper Sparrows are on the ground and made from grass, bark, and moss. They lay up to six eggs which take up to two weeks to hatch and a further one or two weeks for the young to leave the nest.
Fun fact: Male Vesper Sparrows run after females with their wings raised, leaping into the air and singing to attract their attention.
Sagebrush Sparrows are not very common in California, but they are winter birds mainly in the south of the state.
Sagebrush Sparrows are medium-sized birds that are easier to recognize than other sparrows. Their head is gray with a white patch in front of their eyes. Their back has streaks of dark brown, and they have a dark-gray stripe on their throats. Their chests and bellies are white with a dark spot in the center.
- Artemisiospiza nevadensis
- Length: 16 cm (6.25 in)
- Weight: 20 g (0.7 oz)
- Wingspan: 21 cm. (8.25 in)
Sagebrush Sparrows are found inland in western US states. They breed in more northern areas and migrate south for winter. Some may remain all year in the middle of their range.
You can find Sagebrush Sparrows among undisturbed sagebrush and other shrubs. In winter, they migrate to brushy saltbush lands and other desert-like areas.
During the summer, Sagebrush Sparrows eat plenty of spiders and insects like ants, grasshoppers, and beetles. They also feed on seeds of grasses and weeds.
Sagebrush Sparrows song:
Nests of Sagebrush Sparrows are found within sagebrush or saltbush. They are built low to the ground and made out of twigs and sticks and lined with grass and weeds. Females lay three to four eggs that hatch within sixteen days. The young leave their nest around eleven days after hatching.
Fun Fact: Sagebrush Sparrows will return to their successful “tried and tested” breeding sites every year.
Sparrows in California during Migration
Clay-colored Sparrows are not very common in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring here during fall migration.
These small, plain birds of the northern prairies and Great Plains have distinctive head markings which set them apart from other sparrows. They have a gray collar around their necks and long notched tails.
- Spizella pallida
- Length: 5.1 – 6 in (13 – 15 cm)
- Weight: 0.42 oz (12 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5 in (19 cm)
Clay-colored Sparrows are the most common sparrow you can spot in summer in the northern prairies. They breed in Canada and the northern Great Plains before migrating south to Texas and Mexico.
In summer, you can find Clay-colored Sparrows in shrubland, looking for seeds, leaf buds, or the occasional insect.
Clay-colored Sparrow sounds: Their song is a two-note buzzing sound.
Nests of Clay-colored Sparrows are usually close to the ground and well hidden in vegetation. The female makes them from twigs and grass, and they are lined with softer grasses and animal hair.
They lay up to five eggs which take around two weeks to hatch and a further week for the young to leave the nest.
Fun fact: Young Clay-colored Sparrows leave the nest before they can fly, and they have to run for cover when there is danger.
Swamp Sparrows are not commonly spotted in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring here and most likely to be seen during fall migration.
Swamp Sparrows are dark brown on the back with rusty crowns and wings. They have gray breasts and white throats. Their heads are gray, and they have brown faces with a dark eye line and yellow end to the beak.
- Melospiza georgiana
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-0.8 oz (15-23 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-7.5 in (18-19 cm)
Swamp Sparrows are more located in the east. They breed in Canada and northeastern and North Central US states before migrating to eastern and southern US states and Mexico.
As the name would suggest, Swamp Sparrows are found in wetlands, swamps, bogs, and coastal marshes. They feed on seeds and fruit, especially in winter, and insects in spring.
Swamp Sparrow sounds: Their song is a rapid trill of the same note.
Nests of Swamp Sparrows are usually hidden in vegetation on or close to the ground and made from twigs, leaves, and cattails. The nest is lined with grass and other plant material.
They lay up to six eggs, which take two weeks to hatch, and the young take a further one or two weeks to fledge.
Swamp Sparrows do not visit backyards except in migration to yards with lots of vegetation and water.
Fun fact: Swamp Sparrows sing before dawn when it is still dark.
Other Sparrows in California
Harris’s Sparrows are considered near-threatened species in California, but you may get lucky and spot them here from October to May.
Harris’s Sparrows are distinctive, with a black face and bib darker in adults than juveniles. They also have brown-streaked bodies, with pale bellies and pink bills. Breeding adults have gray heads, but non-breeding adults have brown heads.
- Zonotrichia querula
- Length: 6.7-7.9 in (17-20 cm)
- Weight: 0.9-1.7 oz (26-49 g)
- Wingspan: 10.6 in (27 cm)
Harris’s Sparrows breed in the northern tundra of central Canada and migrate to south-central Great Plains for winter. They can be seen during migration across central US states and Canadian provinces.
You can find Harris’s Sparrows out in the open during their migration or in winter in fields or other open areas. They eat seeds, fruit, insects, and especially crowberries in spring when nesting, and there is less food around.
Harris’s Sparrow Call/Song:
Nests of Harris’s Sparrows are on the ground and made from twigs and moss and lined with soft grass. They lay up to five eggs which take around two weeks to hatch and a further nine days or so for the young to leave the nest.
Attract Harris’s Sparrows to your backyard in winter with black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn.
Fun fact: Harris’s Sparrows are the only songbird that breeds in Canada and nowhere else.
Lark Buntings are rarely spotted in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring, and there have been some sightings in the state.
Male Lark Buntings are one of the easiest of the sparrow family to recognize. Males are black with a white wing patch. However, females and non-breeding males are brown-streaked in color, but they also have white in their wings.
- Calamospiza melanocorys
- Length: 5.5-7.1 in (14-18 cm)
- Weight: 1.3-1.5 oz (35.3-41.3 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8-11.0 in (25-28 cm)
Lark Buntings breed in central states and southern Canada and migrate to the southern Great Plains and northern Mexico for winter. However, some birds remain all year in southern US states.
You can find Lark Bunting on the ground in open grasslands and prairie with sagebrush. They eat seeds, insects, and some fruit.
Lark Bunting Call/Song:
The nests of Lark Bunting are built by both males and females and are made from grass and leaves lined with soft grass and animal hair. They lay up to five eggs that take around eleven days to hatch and a further week for the young to leave the nest.
Fun fact: Male Lark Buntings sing while flying back down from height in the breeding season.
Nelson’s Sparrows are rarely spotted in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring and have been spotted around San Diego.
Nelson’s Sparrows are more orangy in color across the head and chest. Their backs are gray and brown-streaked, and their bellies are gray. Coastal birds are less bright in color than interior birds.
- Ammospiza nelsoni
- Length: 4.3-5.1 in (11-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.7 oz (17-21 g)
- Wingspan: 6.5-7.9 in (16.5-20 cm)
Nelson’s Sparrows breed mainly in central Canadian provinces, and then they migrate to the Gulf and Atlantic Coast for winter. They can be seen during migration across the Great Plains.
You can find Nelson’s Sparrows on the ground in wetlands in summer, foraging for seeds and insects. In winter, you can find them in saltwater and brackish marshes.
Nelson’s Sparrow sounds:
Nests of Nelson’s Sparrows are usually close to the ground and made from grass by the female. They lay up to six eggs which take under two weeks to hatch.
Fun fact: Nelson’s Sparrow males fly fast and far just above the marsh vegetation in a courtship display.
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrows are extremely rare to spot in California, but they are recognized as regularly occurring here and were seen around Arcata in 2022.
American Tree sparrows are long-tailed brown-streaked plump birds with rusty caps, gray faces, and a rusty eye line.
- Spizelloides arborea
- Length: 5.5 in (14 cm)
- Weight: 0.5-1.0 oz (13-28 g)
- Wingspan: 9.4 in (24 cm)
American Tree Sparrows are a bird of winter in the US and a bird of summer in Canada.
They breed in the far north of Canada and in Alaska and migrate to most US states for the winter, except the Pacific and Gulf Coasts.
You can find American Tree Sparrows foraging in small flocks in weedy fields and under bird feeders.
American Tree Sparrows sounds: Males sing a pleasant song from late winter, before migration. Their song is a tuneful series of rising and falling whistles.
Nests of American Tree Sparrows’ are usually on or near to the ground and are made of twigs, grass, and moss. They lay around five eggs, and these take just under two weeks to hatch and just over a week for the young to fledge.
Attract American Tree Sparrows to your backyard platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer, cracked corn, and millet. They also feed seeds dropped on the ground from tube feeders.
Fun fact: American Tree Sparrows do not spend much time in trees but forage and nest on the ground. Their name comes from European settlers that thought they looked similar to the European Tree Sparrow.
How to Attract Sparrows to Your Backyard
Sparrows are easy to attract to your yard with these easy to follow tips.
- Provide their favourite seeds which include sunflower seeds nyjer, millet and cracked corn.
- Plant native plants and shrubs to attract insects
- Provide a water feature with clean running water
- Don’t put feeders near sheltered areas where cats may pounce.
Most Commonly Spotted Sparrows in California:
Bird watchers submit checklists on ebird, and this shows how frequently all the sparrows in California are spotted:
- White-crowned Sparrow 31.4%
- California Towhee 29.3%
- Song Sparrow 27.4%
- Dark-eyed Junco 22.3%
- Spotted Towhee 21.1%
- House Sparrow 14.4%
- Golden-crowned Sparrow 14.0%
- Savannah Sparrow 8.6%
- Fox Sparrow 5.7%
- Lincoln’s Sparrow 5.1%
- Lark Sparrow 2.8%
- Chipping Sparrow 2.3%
- Rufous-crowned Sparrow 1.1%
- White-throated Sparrow 0.9%
- Green-tailed Towhee 0.8%
- Bell’s Sparrow 0.8%
- Black-throated Sparrow 0.7%
- Brewer’s Sparrow 0.6%
- Vesper Sparrow 0.4%
- Abert’s Towhee 0.4%
- Grasshopper Sparrow 0.3%
- Black-chinned Sparrow 0.2%
- Clay-colored Sparrow 0.2%
- Swamp Sparrow 0.2%
- Harris’s Sparrow 0.1%
- Sagebrush Sparrow 0.1%
- Lark Bunting <0.01%
- Nelson’s Sparrow <0.01%
- American Tree Sparrow <0.01%