Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows


Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in my garden.

Saturday, I participated in the Christmas Bird Census at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education. Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows was our mystery of the day. Known as little brown jobs, they are hard to tell apart.

I had been waiting for it for over a month. It fits in with my plan to do at least one environmental activity each month.

The day was warm Saturday morning. The last Christmas Bird Count I did two years ago, the temperature was well below freezing. I bought hand and toe warmers, which I didn’t need.

The Full Wolf Moon was low in the morning sky. I wanted to photograph it but the ridges and trees were in the way.

Mourning Doves perched on a branch.
Mourning Doves perched on a branch.

How a Christmas Bird Count is Done

The Census participants gathered in a room at the Center. The Center’s land was divided into sections. Each of the sections had difference habitats. Some sections included the Schuylkill River or creeks and streams. There were plenty of old meadows, grassy areas, and thickets, too. The Census works best when there is a wide variety of habitats to explore.

Some sections were here hilly. And some were flat land with easier walking. Once participants decided what kind of terrain they wanted to walk, we broke into groups. Each group took maps and tally sheets. Then we headed out to our chosen areas.

Leigh of the Schuylkill Center was the leader of our group of three. The third birder was a new acquaintance named Barbara. We three made a great team. We counted many species of birds.

We heard just as many of not more birds than by spotting them by eyesight. Leigh was our bird call and sounds expert. I learn something from her each time I bird with her.

Song Sparrow and Savannah habitat - grassland, open fields, and meadows. Schuylkill Center
Song Sparrow and Savannah habitat – grassland, open fields, and meadows. Schuylkill Center

Caution: Excited Birders Ahead

Our mystery of the day was a sparrow. Know as “little brown jobs” in birding circles, there are so many sparrows. And many of them are confusing to identify. Our mystery was a sparrow that had much darker breast streaks than the more common Song Sparrow.

The mystery sparrow was larger than a Song Sparrow. The streaks were darker. There wasn’t a dark center spot in the middle of the breast. And there were those yellow lures over the mystery bird’s eyes.

So, we reluctantly admitted to ourselves that the mystery bird was what we dared to say out loud. It was  Savannah Sparrow. Savannah Sparrow is often further south during the cold weather. But Philly was 66 degrees F this past Saturday. I didn’t wear a coat, just a fleece jacket.

And we also had a Savannah Sparrow on the Center’s Census last year.  I was proud we could tell that this sparrow was different from the most common ‘little brown jobs” for our area.

Above all, we didn’t want to make a bird into something it wasn’t just because we were excited.

Identifying Savannah and Song Sparrows

To illustrate, take a look at the two Sparrows, Song and Savannah.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in my garden.

Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia), commonly seen

key features:

  • heavy breast streaks with a large dark spot in the center of the chest
  • the long rounded tail is longer than a Savannah Sparrow,’s; no yellow over the eyes,
  • Habitat: thickets, brush, marshes, roadsides, and gardens
  • more on the Song Sparrow including songs and calls on


Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), commonly seen

key features:

  • heavily streaked breast, no central spot on the chest
  • short notched tail, pinkish legs, pinkish beak, usually has a yellow lure over the eyes
  • more on the Savannah Sparrow  including songs and calls on


Pine tree groove - habitat for owls and hawks. Schuylkill Center
Pine tree groove – habitat for owls and hawks. Schuylkill Center


Winter Resident Birds We Counted

In fact, who we were counting were the winter resident birds. Schuylkill Center The 2019 Christmas Bird Count Census at the Schuylkill counted 36 species. This 2020 census netted 44 species.

Here are some of the birds my group saw counted:

  1. Carolina Wren
  2. Turkey Vultures
  3. Black Vultures
  4. Red-tailed Hawks
  5. White-throated Sparrow
  6. Robin
  7. Blue Jay
  8. Dark-eyed Junco
  9. Crow
  10. Raven
  11. White-breasted Nuthatch
  12. Black-capped Chickadee
  13. Mourning Doves
  14. Song Sparrow
  15. Savannah Sparrow
  16. Bluebird
Tree Cavity - cover for extreme winter weather.
Tree Cavity – cover for extreme winter weather.

Other Animals Seen in January

In addition, other animals I saw on the warm January day were:

  • Milkweed Bug
  • White-tailed Deer (1 buck, 5 females)
  • Coyote scat
  • Gnats
  • House Fly

Also, some of the other things I saw included: abandoned bird nests. The nest on the left is probably a Vireo nest. We stuck our fingers in and the nest was soft, cushy, and deep.

Once we finished walking our areas, the counters got together tallied our official counts. Afterward, I sat outside in the warm sunshine and ate my lunch. I think it was my first January picnic.


Did anyone else participate in the Christmas Bird Census? What birds did you see? I would love to know in the comments below.