What kinds of sparrows can you find in Illinois?
No matter where you live in Illinois, 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 21 types of sparrows found in Illinois!
#1. House Sparrow
- Passer domesticus
- Males have gray crowns, black bib, white cheeks, and chestnut on the sides of their faces and neck. Their backs are predominantly brown with black streaks.
- Females are a dull brown color with streaks of black on their backs. Their underparts are light brown. This sparrow can be distinguished by the tan line that extends behind its eye.
House Sparrows are an invasive species (originally from the Middle East) and now one of the most abundant and widespread birds in Illinois (and the world)!
Range Map – House Sparrow
The House Sparrows compete with many native birds, such as bluebirds and Purple Martins, for nest cavities. Unfortunately, these invasive species tend to win more times than not.
In most urban and suburban areas it’s INCREDIBLY COMMON to see House Sparrows. They owe their success to their ability to adapt and live near humans. Unlike most other birds, they love grains and are commonly seen eating bread and popcorn at amusement parks, sporting events, etc. At your bird feeders, they especially love eating cracked corn, millet, and milo.
House Sparrows can be heard across the entire planet. In fact, pay attention the next time you’re watching the news in another country. Listen for a simple song that includes lots of “cheep” notes.
#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 Illinois, 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. Swamp Sparrow
- Melospiza georgiana
- Medium size, plump, short conical bill, and long tail.
- Both sexes have a gray face with a reddish cap, gray breast, gray throat, and a dark streak line behind the eye.
- Reddish-brown wings.
Swamp Sparrows are seen in Illinois primarily near water.
This species likes marshes with cattails or other tall reeds or grasses.
Swamp Sparrow Range Map
Look for them foraging and perching near the water’s edge, scratching up seeds and insects in brushy habitats. In winter, this species eats mostly seeds and plant matter. In spring and summer, they prefer insects. Their long legs allow them to wade in shallow water and catch prey.
These sparrows may visit your backyard to eat lilies or blueberries. Make sure you have some thick ground cover or brush piles for them to hide inside.
Males sing a simple slow trill from perches and can sing all day and even at night. Listen below.
#4. Vesper Sparrow
- Pooecetes gramineus
- More round and chunky, small bill, and notched tail.
- Both sexes have brown streaks all over, a white eye-ring, and white outer tail feathers.
Look for Vesper Sparrows in Illinois in open grassy areas, like prairies, pastures, sagebrush, and meadows. This sparrow prefers not to be in long grass or wet areas.
Vesper sparrows typically spend all their time running and hopping on the ground, foraging on seeds in the grass or weeds.
Vesper Sparrow Range Map
These birds also like to take dust baths to get clean.
You may see Vespers singing from fences, posts, shrubs at any time from morning until night. Listen below.
#5. 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.
#6. White-throated Sparrow
- Zonotrichia albicollis
- Both sexes’ colors can vary; some can be more grayish or tannish on their chunky body.
- Head is typically black and white striped with a yellow spot between the eyes.
- White throat patch, gray face, and small bill.
Look for these sparrows in the woods on the forest edge. They enjoy scratching at the ground under leaves or picking leaves up and moving them out of the way with their bill.
White-throated Sparrow Range Map
This species readily visits bird feeders, especially in winter. Feed them sunflower seeds or millet and make sure some of the food ends up on the ground, as they won’t fly up to feeders. Luckily, I see these birds often at my feeding station! And having a place for them to hide and find shelter will entice them to stay.
To attract them to your backyard, use black oil sunflower seeds and millet in the winter.
White-throated Sparrows sing a high-pitched whistle that is easy to learn. Just listen for “Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada.”
#7. 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 Illinois.
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.
#8. 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 Illinois. Listen below.
#9. 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 Illinois. 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.
#10. 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 Illinois.
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!
#11. 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.
#12. Grasshopper Sparrow
- Ammodramus savannarum
- Both sexes are brown and tan, with a flat head and small orange-yellow mark by their eye.
- Thick neck, a long bill, and short tail.
Grasshopper Sparrows stay close to the ground because they typically prefer running or walking to flying. That’s why you’ll find them where it’s flat, such as grasslands, prairies, and open pastures.
While walking in fields, be on the lookout for Grasshopper Sparrow nests! They actually make their nests on the ground in thick patches of tall grass.
Grasshopper Sparrow Range Map
These sparrows get their name from grasshoppers being a huge part of their diet. To feed their babies, they will catch a grasshopper, shake it until its legs fall off, and then feed it to their young.
Grasshopper Sparrows are one of only a few sparrows in Illinois that sing two distinct songs. One is high-pitched, buzzy, and insect-like (featured below). The other is more musical and squeaky.
#13. 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.
#14. Clay-colored Sparrow
- Spizella pallida
- Petite and slender body with a small bill and long notched tail.
- Both sexes are light tannish on top.
- Grayish bodies with multicolored faces, the crown is thinly streaked.
These sparrows prefer to live in Illinois in shrublands and thickets. However, some populations are located in Christmas tree farms and other grassy areas with short, scattered pine trees.
Clay-colored Sparrow Range Map
Clay-colored Sparrows’ young leave their nest before they can fly. To get by, they hop on the ground for about a week, where the mother feeds them until they learn to fly.
Males sing to establish their territory, and they chooser lower perches when compared to most other sparrows in Illinois. Listen for a short buzzy song lasting 2 to 8 seconds, which sounds more like an insect than a bird.
#15. Eastern Towhee
- Pipilo erythrophthalmus
- Large sparrow with a chunky body, thicker triangular-shaped bill, and rounded tail.
- Males are black on upperparts and breast, rusty color on sides, and white belly.
- Females are warm brown on upperparts, light rusty color on sides, and white belly.
Eastern Towhees are one of the biggest sparrows in Illinois.
Towhees like thick brush along the forest edge where they search for food on the ground under fallen leaves. They find their food by hopping backward and scratching the ground with their feet.
Eastern Towhees Range Map
You’ll often see these birds in your backyard if you have thick shrubbery or overgrown wooded areas. They’ll also sometimes visit bird feeders to eat seeds that have fallen to the ground.
Unfortunately, the Brown-headed Cowbird takes advantage of Eastern Towhee’s parenting skills. When female Cowbirds lay eggs, they’ll often find a Towhee nest and take out the Towhees egg and lay their egg inside. The Towhee sadly cannot tell the difference, so the female raises the Cowbirds young. In some areas, Cowbirds have laid their eggs in over half of the Towhee nests!
Males are the only ones to sing, but their songs have an easy mnemonic to help you remember their sound. Listen for a quick trill that sounds like “drink-your-tea!” Listen below.
#16. Harris’s Sparrow
- Zonotrichia querula
- Large body, small head, medium-sized bill, and long tail.
- Breeding adults are black and brown, with white upperparts.
- Gray on the sides of the head, black on the crown, face, and throat.
This species is one of the largest sparrows in Illinois.
Harris’s Sparrows like breeding areas with open tundra mixed with black spruce, alder, and white pine trees. They are the one songbird that breeds ONLY in Canada.
When they return to Canada, it’s too still cold to breed, and not much food available. So they seek crowberries which provide them with enough nourishment. They end up eating around 675 berries a day.
Harris’s Sparrow Range Map
In the winter, they migrate south and commonly visit bird feeders. They love visiting feeders filled with black oil sunflower seeds, millet, and cracked corn. Harris’s Sparrows also enjoy foraging near brush piles in backyards and using them for shelter.
The male Harris’s Sparrow sings more often than the female, and their songs are a few simple notes all in the same pitch. However, sometimes the song can be mixed with buzzy or hoarse notes as well.
#17. Henslow’s Sparrow
- Centronyx henslowii
- Both sexes are large, with a flat head, large bill, and a short spiked tail.
- Tan and buff, with brown, black, and white streaks on upperparts. Head is greenish-yellow with dark stripes on the side of their crown. They also have a yellow spot between the eye and bill.
- The breast is white with black streaks and a short spiky tail.
Henslow’s Sparrows are very secretive. Look for them spending much of their day foraging in thick weedy fields or pastures foraging for food. In winter, they like to be near saltmarshes.
If bothered, they prefer to walk rather than fly away. Many times, you’ll see them running through the grass to flee a predator.
Henslow’s Sparrow Range Map
Their songs are the shortest and simplest of all the sparrows in Illinois.
Listen for a 2-second simple high whistle!
#18. Lark Sparrow
- Chondestes grammacus
- Large and long-bodied. Look for white tips on their tail.
- Both sexes have a striking head pattern with white and black streaks and a brown patch on the cheek. White, pale stripe over the eye.
- Their distinct blocky face pattern sets them apart from other sparrows.
Lark Sparrows breed in Illinois in open grasslands with scattered forests nearby, like open woodlands and orchards.
Lark Sparrow Range Map
The males put on a good show to find a mate. He does this by hopping in a line, then tipping his tail up and spreading his tail feathers with his wings drooped to the ground, showing off for the female. Once a female is impressed, he’ll present her with a twig before copulation (mating.)
Lark Sparrows visit backyard feeders to eat seeds, mainly in the winter and only on the ground. In the summer, they eat mostly insects.
Males sing a song starting will a buzz, followed by a few clear notes, and ending with a trill note. Their song is very different from other sparrows in Illinois. Listen below.
#19. LeConte’s Sparrow
- Ammospiza leconteii
- Both sexes are small and appear chunky.
- Coloration is brownish-pumpkin orange, with a black eye-line that thickens as it goes to the back of the head.
- Eyebrow is brighter orange than the face. Face and breast are creamy-white with a tiny gray bill.
LeConte’s prefer to walk or hop on dense grasses in open marshy or boggy meadows. They would rather run if frightened because their flying is fairly weak!
LeConte’s Sparrow Range Map
LeConte’s Sparrows spend most of their time hidden under shrubbery on the ground, so they sort of act more like a mouse than a bird. It’s a shame because they’re one of the most beautiful sparrows in Illinois.
Males like to sing from covered perches and sometimes will sing in flight. LISTEN BELOW!
#20. Nelson’s Sparrow
- Ammospiza nelsoni
- Both sexes are medium-sized with a short conical bill and short tail.
- Some are pale and orangish-looking, with gray on the nape and cheeks. Others have more contrasting, darker orange colors.
You will see the Nelson’s Sparrow in Illinois during migration in wet meadows or freshwater wetlands with cattails and reeds. During winter, they migrate south to saltwater marshes. These birds are incredibly similar to Saltmarsh Sparrows and were actually considered the same species until 1989!
Look for them foraging on or near the ground or making short flights. They eat a wide variety of insects, including spiders, beetles, other arthropods.
Nelson’s Sparrow Range Map
Nelson’s Sparrows frequently sing at night but will stop singing when another male approaches. They’re not territorial, but they might chase off other males when a female is present. They also follow females to ward off other males even when they’re not paired mates.
The male Nelson’s song is a high hissing sound, like a bird that lost its voice. Males and sometimes females sing to show their dominance, but they are not territorial. Listen below.
#21. Eurasian Tree Sparrow
- Passer montanus
- The wings and back are medium brown with black streaks, and the belly is pale tan to white.
- They have a black face, black eyes, and a blue-grey beak in summer that turns black during the winter.
- A chestnut brown cap runs down the nape of the neck.
To identify a Eurasian Tree Sparrow in western Illinois, you must look closely! These birds look almost identical to House Sparrows. 🙂
To determine if you are observing a House Sparrow or Tree Sparrow, you need to look at the top of the head. The top of the head and back of the neck on a Tree Sparrow is covered in a rich chestnut color. Male House Sparrows have a dark grey crown that extends from the top of their bill to the back.
Interestingly, these little songbirds are not native to Illinois but from Europe. Back in 1870, twelve individuals were released in St. Louis, Missouri, to make the European settlers feel more at home. From there, they quickly took up residence. But in contrast to House Sparrows, who are comfortable living around humans in cities, Eurasian Tree Sparrows are found in rural areas near farms and lightly wooded areas.
Their call is high and shrill and sounds like “tchee-TCHEE, tchee-TCHEE, tchee-TCHEE.”
Do you need additional help identifying sparrows?
Try this field guide!
Which of these sparrows have you seen before in Illinois?
Leave a comment below!
To learn more about birds that live near you, check out these other guides!
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.