Song sparrows (Melospiza melodia) are one of the most abundant sparrow species native to North America, and are present in every U.S. state (except Hawaii) at some point of the year, either as breeding birds, year-round residents, or winter visitors. But is it possible to tell the difference between males and females based on looks alone? Keep reading as we take a look at the key identifying features of female song sparrows.
Male and female song sparrows look alike. Their plumage – various shades of lighter and darker brown with streaked markings, a gray head, and a speckled breast – offers no distinguishing features between the sexes, although on average female song sparrows are smaller than males.
In order to successfully tell the difference between the sexes, looking at behavior and habits may give us more of a clue. Females take a lead role in nest creation and incubation of eggs, while males are particularly territorial defenders of their nest, mate and small home patch, using their repertoire of melodious song to warn off intruders.
If you’re interested in learning more about the appearance, behavior and calls of female song sparrows, then read on as we’ll be taking an in-depth look at these topics and more below.
Male and female Song Sparrows share the same plumage, meaning it's impossible to tell the sexes apart by plumage alone
Male and female song sparrows are alike in appearance, sharing the same streaked dark and light brown plumage, with a brown cap, gray face, and pinkish legs. The key physical difference lies in their size – side-by-side, male song sparrows can be told apart from females as males are slightly larger.
However, from a distance, or when looking at a lone bird, it is almost impossible to identify a song sparrow’s sex based simply on visual appearance.
Other ways to distinguish between male and female song sparrows are nesting behavior – females build nests alone and incubate eggs without any involvement from the male – and calls, with males being more likely to be heard in song than females.
Female Song Sparrows are slightly smaller than males, but this is only useful when you see a pair together
Twenty-four subspecies of song sparrow have been identified, all with similar markings (described below), but coloration may change slightly depending on geographical location.
Coastal and northern birds tend to be darker, while southern subspecies are generally paler. In all subspecies, females and males are alike in appearance.
Female song sparrows are mid-sized sparrows, and have distinctive brown, streaky markings on their back, wings and tail. Their whitish chest features a central dark spot, and is speckled with dark brown streaks, which fade towards their underparts.
A female song sparrow’s face is pale gray, marked with a dark brown eye stripe, a mixture of dark and light brown markings, and a small whitish patch under the bill. Their head is capped with rich warm brown, becoming slate gray above the eye.
The legs of a female song sparrow are pinkish brown, and the bill of an adult female is an olive-gray.
Close up of a Song Sparrow perched on a cattail
On average, female song sparrows are slightly smaller than males and also weigh marginally less. There is no data breakdown between the sexes of song sparrows, but females will typically fall towards the lower end of the following ranges for the species.
Song sparrows are territorial birds all year round, and this is displayed in different ways by males and females. Males use their song to mark their territory and are more likely to be seen perching in open view.
Females are more secretive and often remain hidden in the undergrowth where they conduct their foraging or nest-building duties. When challenged by the presence of another female on their patch, particularly in urban areas, females will aggressively display.
Males use song to attract a mate, and females will choose a mate based on the standard of their song as well as the quality of their territory.
Song Sparrow eating seeds from a backyard bird feeder
The tuneful and extensive repertoire of the male song sparrow gives the species its name, but do female sparrows ever sing too? Well, the short answer is yes, female song sparrows do sing, but not as tunefully, demonstratively or regularly as males.
Males use song as a territorial defense and as a way to attract a mate. Females do not routinely sing, but can be heard in song at the nest site, which is thought to be used as a deterrent to female intruders to their territory in spring.
Female song sparrows use a range of calls to communicate with their mate and their young, and to warn off any unwanted visitors to their territory.
An sharp ‘tik tik tik’ alarm call is made by males and females when they are disturbed, and a sharp twittering ‘chi-chi-chi-chit-chit-chit’ can be heard by nesting females, either to signal to males that they wish to take a break from incubation or to warn nearby females that the territory is taken.
Additional calls include a chattering call, used by females to males during nest construction, and a nasal ‘trill’, which is usually made by females after mating.
A Song Sparrow singing melodically - males usually sing the most of the sexes
Female sparrows build nests alone, with males remaining close by and observing the construction process. Incubation is by the female alone, but males are thought to call females to leave the nest to feed, and then stand guard nearby until she returns, protecting the nest and the unhatched eggs.
Both parents initially feed hatchlings, with males taking a dominant role once the young have fledged as females commonly renest and are busy constructing or incubating a second brood.
Males and females share the same diet, with seeds and fruits in winter, supplemented by insects in winter.
Song Sparrow resting on a branch
Female song sparrows can be easily confused with two other sparrows with similar markings and coloring. The Lincoln’s sparrow (Melospiza lincolnii) is also streaked with light and brown markings, but has a shorter grayer tail, and distinctive brown cheek patches.
Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) also have similar-colored plumage, with the same streaky patterns, but has a telltale forked tail. When viewed at close range, yellowish facial markings can be seen on the Savannah sparrow.
In theory, a female song sparrow could successfully raise young. Nest construction and incubation are both undertaken by females without any direct help from males.
Males have been observed to watch over nest sites while females leave their unhatched eggs briefly to feed, so any threat from predation would be increased for females attempting to successfully hatch eggs or raise young alone.
Song Sparrows are well-known for their wonderful singing
Female song sparrows are a mixture of light and dark brown, with pale underparts, streaky dark brown backs, and gray faces, marked with a brown eye stripe and other dark brown markings
Female song sparrows are vocal birds, and use a range of distinct contact calls in different situations, such as communication with a mate or with young, a trilled copulation greeting call and a sharp, twittering call heard at the nest site, which serves to warn potential female settlers that the territory is already occupied.
Female song sparrows do sing, but nowhere near as often or as tunefully as the males. The song of female song sparrows is less complex than that of the males, so if you see a song sparrow sitting on top of a shrub singing its heart out, the likelihood is that it’s a male rather than a female.
While male song sparrows are known for defending their territory by singing, females are observed to show other forms of territorial behavior all year round. Females show some degree of aggression to other female song sparrows on their territory to deter them from attempting to nest there too.
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