This guide will help you identify 22 species of sparrows by sight and sound that can be spotted in Illinois. 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 Illinois and print a free ID chart.
This guide will help you identify the types of sparrows spotted in Illinois that are classed as regularly occurring 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 Illinois
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 Illinois all year:
- House Sparrow
- Eastern Towhee
- Savannah Sparrow
Sparrows in Illinois in winter:
- Dark-eyed Junco
- White-throated Sparrow
- American Tree Sparrow
- White-crowned Sparrow
- Fox Sparrow
Sparrows in Illinois in summer:
- Song Sparrow
- Chipping Sparrow
- Field Sparrow
- Henslow’s Sparrow
- Grasshopper Sparrow
- Vesper Sparrow
- Lark Sparrow
Sparrows in Illinois during migration:
- Swamp Sparrows
- Lincoln’s Sparrow
- Clay-colored Sparrow
- Nelson’s Sparrow
- LeConte’s Sparrow
- Harris’s Sparrow
Other Sparrows in Illinois:
- Spotted Towhee
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.
Field Sparrows can be easy to miss, except for their song that speeds up to a high trill at the end that is often likened to a bouncing ball coming to a stop.
Also, how about the strange buzz of the Grasshopper Sparrow or LeConte’s Sparrow? Have you heard them?
Sparrows in Illinois All Year
House Sparrows are an introduced species in Illinois that can be spotted here all year. They do not migrate and occur in 33% of summer checklists and 35% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers 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.
Eastern Towhees can be spotted in Illinois during the breeding season, from April to October. They appear in 13% of summer checklists, and some stay in the south for winter and appear in 1% of these checklists.
Eastern Towhees are striking large sparrows, about the size of Robin, with a black head, throat, and back, reddish sides, long tails, and a white belly in the males. Females are similar but brown instead of black.
- Pipilo erythrophthalmus
- Length: 6.8-8.2 in (17.3-20.8 cm)
- Weight: 1.1-1.8 oz (32-52 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-11.0 in (20-28 cm)
Eastern Towhees live all year in the southeastern US States, but birds further north move south for the winter.
You can find Eastern Towhees rummaging in the undergrowth and along the edges of forests and thickets.
Eastern Towhee sounds: Their song is a sharp note, followed by a trill.
Nests of Eastern Towhees are usually on the ground, hidden in fallen leaves. They are made from twigs, bark, and leaves, lined with soft grass and animal hair. They lay up to six eggs, which take just under two weeks to hatch and the same for young to fledge.
Attract Eastern Towhees to your backyard with overgrown borders and platform feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, cracked corn, and millet.
Fun fact: Eastern Towhees love the sun and will be found on south-facing slopes
Savannah Sparrows appear in 7% of the summer checklist in Illinois, and they are more commonly spotted from March to June. However, some remain here all year.
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.
Sparrows in Illinois in Summer
Song Sparrows are frequently spotted in Illinois during the breeding season, from March to August. They appear in 37% of summer checklists, and some remain all year and appear in 9% of winter checklists.
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 the 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!
Chipping Sparrows can be spotted in Illinois during the breeding season from March to November and appear in 18% of summer 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.
Field Sparrows breed in Illinois and stay from March to November. They appear in 16% of summer checklists.
Field Sparrows are small, slender brown-backed birds streaked with black. Their undersides are gray, as are their heads, and they have a reddish crown and pink bill.
- Spizella pusilla
- Length: 4.7-5.9 in (12-15 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.5 oz (11-15 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9 in (20 cm)
Field Sparrows remain all year in eastern US states, but those that breed in the Midwest head south for winter.
You can find Field Sparrows in the breeding season as the males will sing from a perch in the early mornings, so they are easier to spot. Otherwise, they quietly feed on weeds and seeds and can be easily missed as they prefer abandoned fields and are shy.
Field Sparrow sounds: A few slow notes that then rapidly speed up into a trill.
Nests of Field Sparrows are built on the ground for the first brood and then higher and higher as the breeding season goes on. Their nests are made from grass, and they lay up to five eggs which take around two weeks to hatch. After that, the young only take around a week to fledge.
Attract Field Sparrows to your backyard with cracked corn, hulled sunflower seeds, and millet.
Fun fact: The Field Sparrows’ song is often thought to sound like a bouncing ball coming to a stop.
Henslow’s Sparrows can be spotted in Illinois during the breeding season and appear in 3% of summer checklists. They are seen in the state from March until September.
Henslow’s Sparrows’ physical characteristics are perfect for hiding in their native environment. They have greenish faces with distinctive black stripes, pale chests and, their bellies are white with a bit of streaking, and they have a reddish back.
It’s hard to tell the difference between males and females, and even juveniles look similar but with a paler color combination and fewer streaks on their bellies.
- Centronyx henslowi
- Length: 12 – 13 cm (4.75 – 5.25 in)
- Weight: 14 g (0.5 oz)
- Wingspan: 18 – 19 cm (7 – 7.5 in)
Henslow’s Sparrows breed in northeastern US states and then migrate to southeastern US states for winter.
You can find Henslow’s Sparrows in wet, weedy, and dense grasslands. However, their natural habitat is slowly disappearing, and they are now making their way towards abandoned farm fields, pastures, and anywhere they can find dense, tall grasslands.
Henslow’s Sparrows are highly secretive birds preferring to stay low and forage at the bottom of grass stalks. They eat seeds like sedges, ragweed, and smartweed. They also eat insects in the summer, such as grasshoppers and caterpillars. They’ve been known to eat berries, too.
Henslow’s Sparrow call/song:
Nests of Henslow’s Sparrows are made from grass and wildflowers placed in slight hollows or at the base of dense clumps of grass. The female lays three to five eggs, which she incubates for eleven days. It takes ten days for the young to fledge, and they are still cared for by their parents for a short period even after they leave the nest.
Fun Fact: Henslow’s Sparrows prefer to run through dense grass rather than fly from danger.
Grasshopper Sparrows appear in 3% of summer checklists in Illinois. They spend the breeding season here and are mainly spotted from April to August.
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.
Although not very common here, Vesper Sparrows can be seen in Illinois during the breeding season, mainly from April to October. They are recorded in 1% of summer checklists.
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.
Lark Sparrows are not very common in Illinois, but they are most likely spotted in the state during the breeding season, from April to July. However, a few do stay until December.
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.
Sparrows in Illinois in Winter
Dark-eyed Juncos are mainly spotted in Illinois from October until May. They are the most frequently spotted sparrows during winter and occur in 43% of checklists at this time.
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.
In winter, White-throated Sparrows are the fourth most frequently spotted sparrows in Illinois and appear in 11% of winter checklists submitted by bird watchers for the state. They are most frequently spotted from October until mid-May.
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.
American Tree Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow are winter birds in Illinois that start arriving in October, and some stay until May, but November until April are the best months to spot them. They are recorded in 18% of winter checklists.
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.
White-crowned Sparrows stay in Illinois during winter, but they are more frequently spotted during the spring and fall migrations in May and October, with birds passing through.
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.
Fox Sparrows spend the winter in Illinois and can be spotted from September until May. They are recorded in 2% of winter checklists for the state.
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!
Sparrows in Illinois during Migration
Swamp Sparrows can be spotted in Illinois all year, but the spring and fall migrations from April to May and October to November are the best months to spot them. They are recorded in up to 18% of checklists during 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.
Lincoln’s Sparrows can be spotted in Illinois during the spring and fall migration during May and October.
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.
Clay-colored Sparrows are not very common in Illinois, but they are spotted here during spring and fall migration, mainly in the north of the state.
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.
Although very rare to find, Nelson’s Sparrows can be spotted during spring and fall migration in Illinois.
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.
LeConte’s Sparrows are rarely spotted in Illinois, but they can be seen here during their migration.
LeConte Sparrows are a dull orange with black streaks on their backs and wings. Their belly is white with pale orange across the chest. They also have gray patches on their cheeks and a dark eye line.
- Ammospiza leconteii
- Length: 4.7-5.1 in (12-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz (12-16.3 g)
- Wingspan: 6.3-7.1 in (16-18 cm)
LeConte’s Sparrows breed mainly in Canada and migrate to the south-central US states. They can be seen during migration over the Great Plains.
You can find Le’Conte’s Sparrows on the ground foraging for seeds and insects in dense grassland that is marshy or boggy. Unfortunately, they are so small and shy that they can be hard to spot.
LeConte’s Sparrow song:
Nests of LeConte’s Sparrows are near to the ground, hidden in dead grass and rushes and made from grass. They lay around five eggs which take about ten days to hatch.
Harris’s Sparrows are considered near-threatened species, but they can be spotted in northwestern Illinois during spring and fall migration.
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.
Other Sparrows in Illinois
Spotted Towhees are extremely rare to spot in Illinois, but they are occasionally spotted here during winter.
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.
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 Illinois:
Bird watchers submit checklists on ebird, and this shows how frequently all the sparrows in Illinois are spotted:
- House Sparrow 33.4%
- Song Sparrow 26.4%
- Dark-eyed Junco 20.7%
- White-throated Sparrow 12.5%
- Chipping Sparrow 9.8%
- Field Sparrow 8.7%
- Eastern Towhee 7.9%
- American Tree Sparrow 7.6%
- Swamp Sparrow 6.2%
- White-crowned Sparrow 6.0%
- Savannah Sparrow 3.9%
- Fox Sparrow 3.0%
- Lincoln’s Sparrow 2.1%
- Henslow’s Sparrow 1.3%
- Grasshopper Sparrow 1.2%
- Vesper Sparrow 0.8%
- Clay-colored Sparrow 0.4%
- Lark Sparrow 0.3%
- Nelson’s Sparrow 0.1%
- LeConte’s Sparrow 0.1%
- Harris’s Sparrow 0.1%
- Spotted Towhee <0.1%