What kinds of sparrows can you find in Alaska?
No matter where you live in Alaska, you are familiar with seeing sparrows. However, many people are surprised to discover the wide variety of species near them.
Below you’ll learn how to identify sparrows by sight or sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which ones live near you!
Here are the 14 types of sparrows found in Alaska!
- The range maps below were generously shared with permission from The Birds of the World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site often to learn new information about birds.
#1. Horned Lark
- Eremophila alpestris
- Has a long body with a small bill.
- Males have a black chest band, a curving black mask on face, and black head stripes, sometimes with 2 raised feathers shaped like tiny horns. Face and throat are either yellow or white, with white underparts.
- Females are lighter in color, with a pattern, but lack a black mask and horns, and have pale yellow on the throat.
Have you ever seen a sparrow in Alaska with “horns?”
If so, then it must have been a Horned Lark! Look for them on the ground in large fields with very short or no vegetation, foraging for small seeds and insects. Their coloration blends with the dirt very well, so make sure to scan closely, so you don’t miss one!
Horned Lark Range Map
Horned Larks are social birds, so they are often seen in huge flocks after breeding season. While they’re still relatively common, these sparrows have unfortunately seen a sharp decline in their population over the past 50 years.
These species’ songs are sweet, musical, fast, and high-pitched. Males either sing from low perches or 800 feet in the air while flying. Listen below.
#2. Song Sparrow
- Melospiza melodia
- Chest has brown streaks that converge onto a central breast spot.
- On their head, look for a brown crown with a gray stripe down the middle and a gray eyebrow and gray cheek.
- Back and body are mostly rust-brown with gray streaks throughout.
These birds can be incredibly difficult to identify due to their abundance and how similar they all tend to look. But luckily, Song Sparrows are one of the easier sparrow species to identify correctly.
Song Sparrow Range Map
Song sparrows are common in the southwestern coastal parts of Alaska, especially in wet, shrubby, and open areas.
Unlike other birds that nest in trees, Song Sparrows primarily nest in weeds and grasses. However, you’ll often find them nesting directly on the ground.
My favorite feature of Song Sparrows is their beautiful songs that can be heard across the continent. The typical one, which you can listen to below, consists of three short notes followed by a pretty trill. The song varies depending on location and the individual bird.
#3. White-crowned Sparrow
- Zonotrichia leucophrys
- Both sexes can be grayish or brownish with a long tail.
- On their head, they can have black and white stripes or brown and tan. The head is peaked on the crown.
- Bills are orangish-yellow or pinkish.
White-crowned Sparrows are found in shrubbery habitats with open grassy areas in the breeding season. In winter, they prefer weedy fields, thickets, and backyards.
White-crowned Sparrow Range Map
If you want to attract these sparrows to your backyard, use sunflower seeds. Just make sure the food is placed on the ground, as they won’t fly up to feeders. and having a brush pile will entice them to stay.
White-crowned Sparrows are known for their long migration journeys. This sparrow has been known to travel over 300 miles in one night.
Males primarily sing, but females on occasion will too. Their song lasts only a few seconds. Listen below.
#4. Savannah Sparrow
- Passerculus sandwichensis
- Both sexes have a plump body, brown feathers, and a super tiny and short tail.
- Streaked with brown and white underparts with a yellow mark above the eye.
Savannah Sparrows are widespread across Alaska.
Look for them in dense grassy areas like meadows, pastures, grassy roadsides, and fields.
Savannah Sparrow Range Map
Unfortunately, this sparrow does not visit bird feeders. But you may spot one in your yard looking for cover in winter, especially if you live by a field or have a brush pile for them to hide inside.
Savannah’s Sparrows fly low to the ground and only for short distances. They are mostly seen walking on the ground foraging for insects and sometimes even running down their prey.
Males sing from perches like a fence. It starts with a few high-pitched notes, then a buzzy sound, and ends with a low trill. Listen below.
#5. Lincoln’s Sparrow
- Melospiza lincolnii
- Medium-sized, small bill, raised crown feathers on top of the head.
- Both sexes have a gray face with thin brown and black streaks.
- Buff white breast with some light tan streaking.
Lincoln’s Sparrows are often found in wet meadows in summer, but they like pine-oak forests or tropical forests when they migrate south in winter.
These birds like to visit backyards that provide them with food and a place to hide like a brush pile. They’ll eat small seeds on the ground, like sunflower and millet, that have spilled out from your feeders.
Lincoln’s Sparrow Range Map
This species tends not to move while singing, so you should have time to spot one if you hear them first.
Lincoln’s are the most musical sparrow in Alaska. Listen below.
#6. Snow Bunting
- Plectrophenax nivalis
- Round bodied with a short thick conical bill.
- Males are almost all white, with black on the back.
- Females are white but have brown-streaked backs and brownish heads.
Snow Buntings choose frigid locations high in the arctic to breed. They build their nests in the deep cracks of rocks and use a thick fur lining to protect the eggs. They never really leave the nest, ensuring it stays warm, and the male comes and feeds the mother every fifteen minutes.
Snow Bunting Range Map
To get a good look at these beautiful birds, look for them, in open fields along the roadside during winter.
Males sing a warble similar to a finch. Listen below.
#7. Lapland Longspur
- Calcarius lapponicus
- Small sparrow with a large head, long wings, and short dark tail with white outer feathers.
- Males have a dark black face with yellow-white on the sides. Chestnut-brown patch on the nape of the neck.
- Females are similar but lack black on their faces.
- In winter, both sexes turn light brown and streaked but keep their dark face pattern.
Lapland Longspurs are sparrows, but they are in the longspur family (Calcariidae) because of the elongated claw on their hind toe. This helps them move over uneven or unstable vegetation easier and faster.
In the summer, Laplands are big eaters, eating up to 10,000 seeds or insects a day!
These sparrows breed in the cold arctic tundra, where males put on an entertaining display of song and flight. They do this by flying about 65 feet in the air and sing while flying towards the ground, which helps attract the females’ attention. In addition, males also perform a “Grass Display” in which they gather grass or moss to give to the female.
Laplands Longspur Range Map
Lapland Sparrows form large flocks in winter as they migrate south to warmer locations. Flocks are estimated to have 4 million birds. Look for them near you in winter in wide-open areas like farm fields.
Songs are very long and squeaky sounding. Also, the variation of notes makes it sound like there’s more than one bird.
#8. Dark-eyed Junco
- Junco hyemalis
- Smooth and soft-looking slate gray with a white belly.
- Small pale bill, long tail with white outer feathers.
- Dark-eyed Juncos have various color patterns depending on the region. So one by you could look different than the pictures above.
Dark-eyed Juncos are one of the most common birds in Alaska. A recent estimate sets their population around 630 million.
You can easily identify these sparrows by how smooth their feathers look. It appears like they would be as soft as a chinchilla to touch.
Dark-eyed Junco Range Map
This species is found in pine and mixed-coniferous forests when they breed, but in winter, they are in fields, parks, woodlands, and backyards.
Dark-eyed Juncos like to visit feeders in the winter, but ONLY ON THE GROUND, where they consume fallen seeds.
Males sing a two-second loud musical trilling song that can carry over hundreds of feet away. In addition, both sexes also sing softer songs that are a mixture of warbles, trills, and whistles.
#9. Chipping Sparrow
- Spizella passerina
- Some are brightly colored with a rusty crown, grayish belly, and a black-streaked eyeline.
- Others are paler with a brownish crown, grayish belly, and an unstreaked neck and belly.
- Both sexes are slim with a long tail and medium-sized bill.
Chipping Sparrows are common across eastern Alaska.
Luckily, they’re easy to identify, thanks to their rust-colored crown. You’ll often see them at backyard feeding stations, eating black oil sunflower seeds and other seed mixes on the ground.
Chipping Sparrow Range Map
Look for them in the woods by grassy meadows. These sparrows are also common in suburban areas!
Chipping Sparrows have loud, trilling songs among the most common sounds of spring woodlands and suburbs. Their songs are long trill notes that they repeat over and over, almost sound mechanical. Listen below!
#10. Fox Sparrows
- Passerella iliaca
- Large, round-bodied, thick bills and medium-length tails.
- Both sexes are typically reddish-brown (like a fox) on top and a mix of brown and gray on the head; the breast is speckled with brown and white on underparts and breast.
- Bills can be yellowish or dark gray.
The coloration of this sparrow varies depending on its location. Types of Fox Sparrows include Red, Sooty, Thick-billed, and Slate-colored.
Fox Sparrows prefer to live in coniferous forests and thick scrubland when breeding. They rarely leave these covered areas in the forest until winter, when they visit backyard bird feeders to eat small seeds on the ground.
Fox Sparrow Range Map
Fox Sparrows like to kick the leaves on the ground, searching for seeds and insects.
These birds are so protective of their nests that they release a loud chirp call note to pretend they are injured to lure potential predators, including humans, away from their nests.
Males and females both sing, but the females’ song is shorter and softer. Just like their color differences, the Fox Sparrows song varies depending on the region. Listen for a series of whistled notes.
#11. American Pipit
- Anthus rubescens
- Both sexes are small and slim with a long thin bill. The tail is medium in length and dark with white edges.
- Gray-brown upperparts and pale buff underparts. Their breast is light to darkly streaked.
- In the winter, they are browner.
You’ll find these sparrows in open areas along the river or lakeshore foraging for food like seabirds. However, they’re also in other bare habitats like short grass plains, sandbars, and manufactured habitats like harvested fields and winter wheat fields.
American Pipit Range Map
American Pipits have a long hind toe (called a hallux) and toenail that helps them walk and search for food on the unstable ground like snowfields and mud. Sometimes, they’ll go into shallow water, to hunt insect larvae.
You can easily identify the American Pipit from the unique way it walks. They strut around quickly and jerk their head forward, similar to how chickens walk.
Listen for their song, which is a series of rapid “cheedle” notes.
#12. American Tree Sparrow
- Spizelloides arborea
- Both sexes are rusty colored on their round head. Their face is gray with a brown streak by their eyes.
- The body is gray with reddish-brown, white, and black streaks.
- They have plump bodies because of their fluffy feathers and long tail.
You will often see American Tree Sparrows in small flocks, hopping on the ground, looking for seeds in the grass or weeds.
American Tree Sparrow Range Map
In the winter, this species likes to visit backyard feeders searching for small seeds, like millet, that have fallen to the ground. Millet comes in most birdseed mixes, and many birds don’t eat it. So American Tree Sparrows are nice to have around because they’ll help clean up your feeding area.
American Tree Sparrows eat a lot! In fact, they have to take in 30% of their body weight in food and water each day. Unfortunately, that means going a day without eating is usually a death sentence for them.
Their song is a series of clear opening notes followed by a variably trilled melody.
#13. Brewer’s Sparrow
- Spizella breweri
- Very small, slim, and long, but size can vary from region.
- Both sexes are short rounded wings streaked with brown, black, and white.
- Grayish-brown, grayish underparts, grayish-white neck, light gray stripe over the eye with a dark eye-line.
The Brewer’s Sparrow is the smallest sparrow in Alaska!
This bird prefers not to live in trees but rather in sagebrush, abundant in arid environments.
Some individuals live in high elevations. Interestingly, these birds are considered a separate subspecies known as the Timberline Sparrow (Spizella breweri taverneri) and look slightly. Their bills and upperparts are darker and the breast and face also have more contrasting colors.
Brewer’s Sparrow Range Map
Brewer’s Sparrows can be hard to identify because they look so “boring.“ Nothing stands out about them, and they are often called the “bird without a field mark.”
Males sing on high protruding perches to attract a mate and declare and defend their breeding territory. Their songs are long dry, trilling notes. Personally, I think their singing is so long and complex that it sounds like they should stop to take a breath.
The funny thing is once these sparrows find their mate, they start singing shorter versions of those songs. I guess they think they don’t need to work as hard anymore. ; )
#14. Smith’s Longspur
- Calcarius pictus
- Small plump sparrow with a notched tail.
- Males are caramel-colored with a black and white pattern on their faces.
- Females are streaked with white, tan, and black; the face is paler white, with a white eye-ring, and a small, thin bill.
Like most sparrows in Alaska, they forage for seeds and insects off the ground. But the surprising thing they do is rip the arms and legs off an insect before eating them.
During the breeding season, you will find Smith’s Longspurs by the tree line in the wet grass meadows of the tundra. During winter, they migrate south to the contiguous USA.
Smith’s Longspur Range Map
Males and females are not monogamous during the breeding season. You’ll typically see them in small groups where males mate as often as 350 times in one breeding season with an average of two partners.
Males sing a similar song to an American Tree Sparrow, with short and sweet notes but some scratchy sounding. Listen below.
Do you need additional help identifying sparrows?
Try this field guide!
Which of these sparrows have you seen before in Alaska?
Leave a comment below!