A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


A moderately common Sparrow in Sonoma County in the winter months. Lincoln’s Sparrow starts arriving in the area in mid- to late September. Most are gone by early May the following year. Not normally present in June, July, or August. Likes damp, brushy areas with plenty of low-growing, shrubby cover, but may be found in any open area with  patches of overgrown shrubby vegetation for shelter. Tends to stay low and hidden. Will sometimes come out to survey the scene, but generally furtive.

A smallish, prettily colored sparrow. It’s most obvious features at a glance are the finely streaked upper breast and the buff wash on the upper breast and flanks (contrasting with a mostly white belly and vent). Also note the slightly peculiar crested look these birds tend to have. Most field guides show a typically round sparrow head. One or two say that Lincoln’s Sparrow has a crested look “when agitated” (the National Geographic guides, for example), but, in my experience, the slightly crested look is much more common than not. Often the combination of buffy and grey colors and the crested look (the head always appears diamond-shaped to me) are enough to identify a Lincoln’s sparrow without much scrutiny. Taking in details, however, note the comparatively small, slender bill; the fine, pale eyering (not always obvious); clear dark streaking on the back; and the pattern of striping on the head (face looks mostly grey with a reddish-brown eyeline that tends to broaden at the back, but the face is greyer above the eye than below). Crown is reddish brown with very fine black streaking and with a central stripe of grey (although the crown stripe is often not visible from the side). Malar stripe is cream to buff bordered by black. Usually has a dark breast spot, but smaller, finer than typical in Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia). Paler at the throat. Also note collar of grey at the nape. 

Juveniles are similar to adults, but with slightly muted colors and more streaking. Can look much like a juvenile Song Sparrow, but Lincoln’s Sparrow has a shorter tail and a more slender bill.  

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 116

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 473

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 422

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 478

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 616-617

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 598

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 338

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 435

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 346

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 246-251 (notes on sparrow ID generally), p. 249

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 419-433 (notes on sparrow ID generally), pp. 421, 431

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 256

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 69

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 300

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 336

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 324

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 423

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 687

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 390

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Lincoln’s Sparrow



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.



Lincoln’s Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, December 16, 2012

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Melospiza lincolnii

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 19, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County