Updated: Apr 29
Now is a great time to learn how to distinguish Lincoln's Sparrow from the often resident Song Sparrow. Because now is always the best time. Amiright?
Sparrows often make bird-lovers shudder. Why? They can be an identification challenge. However, there is no reason to label all sparrows as LBJ's, or Little Brown Jobs. With a little practice, you can begin to separate these species, one bird at a time!
Want to improve your sparrow identification? Check out our favorite sparrow guide:
Lincoln's Sparrow Description
The Lincoln's Sparrow is a New World sparrow that breeds in the Western US and much of Canada. It is a secretive sparrow, often found easily during migration along riparian corridors. Its cute, buffy appearance make this bird fairly distinguishable from the closely-related Song Sparrow. However, it can take ample practice for this identification to become habit.
Song Sparrow Description
The Song Sparrow is another New World sparrow that breeds across much of North America. In many US states and some provinces of Canada, this species can be found throughout the year. It is often one of the earliest singing songbirds, providing relief from winter's hold. It is larger, less buffy, and lighter-colored than the Lincoln's Sparrow. It is one of the most common sparrow species in North America.
Lincoln's Sparrow vs a Song Sparrow - Visual Identification
Visual keys are the "clues" received by your eyes and transmitted to your brain for aid in identification. Basically, if you can see it, it is a visual key.
Lincoln's Sparrow Identification
Malar Area - The Lincoln's Sparrow has a thin, dark malar stripe, buffy submoustachial stripe, and thin, dark subauricular stripe. Now, if you don't know where the malar area is, it is the large stripe that proceeds from the #1 arrow to the lower part of the bill. The lower line is the malar stripe, the middle area is the submoustachial stripe, and the upper line is the subauricular stripe.
Bill - The bill of the Lincoln's Sparrow is daintier than the Song Sparrow. It also can show a more prominent two-tone appearance, with a buffy/fleshy base.
Supercilium - The supercilium or "eyebrow" is darker grey on the Lincoln's Sparrow than the Song Sparrow, and is thicker in appearance.
Eyering - The eyering on the Lincoln's Sparrow is usually quite noticeable, often with a buffy tint.
Not numbered in the photo below is the breast. The breast of the Lincoln's Sparrow is covered in fine streaking with a buffy base color. The Song Sparrow has more prominent streaking with a white base color.
Song Sparrow Identification
Malar Area - The Song Sparrow has a thick, reddish/brown/dark malar stripe, white submoustachial stripe, and thick, reddish/brown/dark subauricular stripe. Now, if you don't know where the malar area is, it is the large stripe that proceeds from the #1 arrow to the lower part of the bill. The lower line is the malar stripe, the middle area is the submoustachial stripe, and the upper line is the subauricular stripe.
Bill - The bill of the Song Sparrow is more prominent than the Lincoln's Sparrow. It also darker overall in appearance.
Supercilium - The supercilium or "eyebrow" is lighter on the Song Sparrow than the Lincoln's Sparrow, and is thinner in appearance.
Eyering - The eyering on the Song Sparrow is not as obvious as on the Lincoln's Sparrow.
Not numbered in the photo below is the breast. The breast of the Song Sparrow is covered in heavy, thick streaking with a white base color. The breast streaking on Song Sparrows can vary widely in color, though the Lincoln's Sparrow breast streaking is usually dark. The Lincoln's Sparrow streaking is finer in appearance.
How to Identify Song Sparrow vs Lincoln's Sparrow - Sound
Auditory keys are the "clues" received by your ears and transmitted to your brain for aid in identification. Basically, if you can hear it, it is an auditory key.
Lincoln's Sparrow Song
Described as a rich, warbling, wrenlike song. It often starts with a series of rapid, high-pitched introductory notes, followed by a short, jumbled phrase starting at a low pitch, then bursting into higher pitches. Mnemonic device for this species described as ju-ju-ju-ju-je-eeeeeee do je-e-e-e to.
Song Sparrow Song
Described as a song of a varied series of 2–6 phrases. Introductory phrases usually with 1–20 pure notes, but usually no more than six. Remaining phrases composed of buzzes, trills, and/or note complexes. Mnemonic device for this species is described as maids-maids-maids put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle.
Habitat & Range for Song Sparrow & Lincoln's Sparrow
Contextual keys are the "clues" found in previously obtained information. Contextual keys include known range, habitat, and behaviors.
Habitat Description for Lincoln's Sparrow
In migratory and breeding areas, Lincoln's Sparrow prefer shrub-dominated habitats providing cover, especially in riparian sites. Winter habitat in much of its range can reflect these preferences, being found in brushy and weedy areas.
Lincoln's Sparrow Range Map
Habitat Description for Song Sparrow
For breeding and migratory Song Sparrows, habitat can consist of shrubs on the moist ground along streams, sloughs, marsh, or coastline. The multiple subspecies found across North America can inhabit a variety of habitats from stream-side vegetation to salt marsh. Winter habitat typically reflects breeding habitat.
Song Sparrow Range Map
Want to get better at identifying sparrows? We recommend the Peterson Reference Guide to Sparrows of North America from Amazon. It is our new favorite field guide to sparrow identification.
Lincoln's Sparrow - Ammon, E. M. (2020). Lincoln's Sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.linspa.01
Song Sparrow - Arcese, P., M. K. Sogge, A. B. Marr, and M. A. Patten (2020). Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.sonspa.01