Birders like to joke about the difficulty of identifying LBBs, or “little brown birds”. They might be wrens, sparrows, finches, or even warblers, but they’re alike in their small size, drab coloring, and cryptic plumage — it sometimes seems as if they have no identifying features at all.
There’s a good reason why so many different taxa share this basic appearance: little brown birds disappear against a backdrop of leaves or bark, and don’t stand out to predators. Unfortunately, what goes for hawks and cats goes double for birders!
In North America, female House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) are the first “little brown birds” that beginning birders are likely to encounter. Both are widely distributed in North America, and are regular visitors at backyard feeders. They’re similar in size, too, and while males can be distinguished by color and pattern, the females of both species are pretty nondescript.
Despite their similarities, distinguishing these birds isn’t too challenging if you know where to look and what to look for. Most of the differences below may be hard to spot initially, but they’ll become much clearer once you start to pay attention.
Table of Contents
Female House Finch vs House Sparrow – Differences
|Female House Finch||House Sparrow|
|Scientific name||Haemorhous mexicanus||Passer domesticus|
|Native status||Native west of Rocky Mts., introduced in eastern U.S.||Introduced (Eurasia)|
|Length (both sexes)||13-14 cm (5.1-5.5 in)||15-17 cm (5.9-6.7 in)|
|Wingspan (both sexes)||20-25 cm (7.9-9.8 in)||19-25 cm (7.5-9.8 in)|
|Weight (both sexes)||16-27 g (0.6-0.9 oz)||27-30 g (0.9-1.1 oz)|
|Habitat||Savanna and open woodlands in native range; urban and suburban areas where introduced.||Urban areas: rarely found away from humans.|
|Diet||Seeds, grains, fruits and flower buds; rarely insects.||Mainly seeds and grains, but will readily eat insects, livestock feed, discarded food, etc.|
|Plain gray-brown; breast extensively streaked; face unmarked.||Uniform buff/tan with darker striping above; clean breast; buffy supercilium.|
|Call similar to House Sparrow’s, rising slightly in pitch; no comparable alarm call.||Husky cheep|
; wren-like chattering when agitated.
|Bill||Thicker than HOSP’s, about as thick as long; color similar to legs||Conical, longer than wide, color similar to legs, frequently with black smudging on upper mandible|
|Leg color||Smudgy pink-gray to dark gray||Pale pink to yellow|
Distribution and Range
One reason these two birds are so easily confused is that they are so strongly associated with human habitation. Throughout all (House Sparrows) or most (House Finches) of their range, these species are introduced, so their populations have expanded in step with people.
They are also quite sedentary throughout most of their range, although House Finches in the Eastern half of the US may migrate short distances in winter. This means that pretty much anywhere in the US, you are likely to see both species year-round.
However, House Sparrows tend to be the more strongly reliant on humans: they are both more likely to be found in dense urban areas, and less likely to travel far from cities. I have often seen House Finches in areas where House Sparrows are rare or absent.
A bird’s bill can be a rich source of information about its taxonomy, diet, and even its habitat and behavior.
At first glance, the bills of House Finches and House Sparrows seem similar, but there are important differences. Both species have short, stout bills, but House Finches’ are much thicker, relative to their length – adapted to cracking seeds with hard, fast, pecks.
Pay special attention to the culmen, or the angle of the upper mandible: a House Finch’s bill curves sharply downward, while the House Sparrow’s is flatter and straighter.
Bill color can also be a good distinguishing feature:
House Finches of both sexes have dark gray bills (I’ve always thought of it as the color of pencil lead).
Female House Sparrows generally have pale yellow bills, but the upper mandible is often smudged with black.
Keep in mind that bill color can vary by age, by season, and by individual, so it shouldn’t be your sole distinguishing character.
Patterns in a bird’s plumage are generally the first things birders notice, and the first characteristics we reach for when trying to make an identification. Unfortunately, little brown birds rarely have distinctive patterns, and females are even less than males.
Female House Sparrows and House Finches are both fairly muted in color, but each has markings that can aid identification.
The easiest feature to catch is the breast:
The House Sparrow has a clean tan or gray breast, while a House Finch’s breast is lightly but extensively streaked.
Compared to their respective males, neither the female House Finch nor the House Sparrow has a particularly distinctive face, but the House Sparrow’s broad, tan “eyebrow” or supercilium sets her apart from the female House Finch, which has no clear facial markings.
Other Physical Characters
House Finches have dark-colored legs, about the same color as their bills. This gives female House Finches a bit of a “monochrome” look, with the same muted color palette from head to tail.
House Sparrows’ legs are pink, and contrast with both their yellow bills and their brown plumage. House Sparrows also have longer legs than House Finches, which gives them a lower center of gravity when perched.
The shorter legs of House Finches give them a more upright posture on the branch. Of course, a bird’s posture can change depending on the type of perch, so these observations are general rather than universal – but it’s good policy to pay attention to all the different aspects of a bird’s appearance.
Bird behavior may not be as clear a mark as color, size, or shape, but it’s an important trait. I often think of behavior as the “personality” of a species, which sometimes announces itself much more forcefully than any anatomical trait.
House Sparrows and House Finches have similar life histories, so they have a lot of behaviors in common too, but they do have different “personalities”.
House Finches, for example, are much more comfortable in the open sky than House Sparrows, and are commonly seen flying high above trees and houses, while House Sparrows keep close to the ground and only fly short distances before seeking cover.
By the same token, finches tend to perch higher than House Sparrows, which prefer grass and shrubs to trees. Both species are quite gregarious, and are rarely seen alone.
This means that if you see a female bird, a male probably isn’t far away, and since the males of each species are fairly easy to distinguish, you may be able to identify females by the male birds they associate with.
The songs of House Finches and House Sparrows are quite easy to tell apart – the former’s is a long, rambling warble, while the latter’s is simply an insistent chirrup – but this won’t help you much to identify a female bird.
Female House Sparrows and House Finches limit their vocalizations to contact notes, which are quite similar: burry cheeps and chirps, timbrally similar to a Song Sparrow’s but less forceful.
Female House Sparrows give a chattery, scolding call similar to a wren’s when a mate or rival is nearby, and this should be enough to distinguish the bird – and if the bird is part of a flock, the ceaseless chattiness of House Sparrows easily sets them apart from the comparatively taciturn House Finches.
Female House Finch Call
House Sparrow Call
Despite their cryptic coloring and appearance, female House Sparrows and House Finches aren’t challenging to distinguish once you know where to look. These field marks may seem quite subtle at first, but they’ll become much easier with practice — which shouldn’t be hard, since they’re two of our most common urban birds.
Practice will also help you to become more confident with other “little brown birds”, which will seem easy to identify once you’re attuned to these finer distinctions. Good luck and happy birding!