How to Identify a Lincoln’s Sparrow

Learn what features to look for on a Lincoln's sparrow, where to find this bird, and how to attract the species to your backyard.

Colleen Gibbs of Coon Rapids, Minnesota, wrote to birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman after seeing a mysterious sparrow in her yard. They explained how to identify a Lincoln’s sparrow.

A striped Lincoln's sparrow hops along the ground.Colleen Gibbs
A striped Lincoln’s sparrow hops along the ground.

She says of the new visitor, “This bird is similar to several other types of sparrows, but it doesn’t seem to match any exactly. What is it?”

What Does a Lincoln’s Sparrow Look Like?

With a beautiful, clear photo such as yours, we have plenty of clues to check. This bird is a Lincoln’s sparrow, an uncommon species in your area that is often shy. Its colors are helpful for checking its identity: The face is mostly gray, with reddish brown stripes along the sides of the crown, a buff mustache mark and a narrow buff eye ring. The chest is also buff with narrow black streaks.

Learn how to identify and attract a chipping sparrow.

Lincoln’s Sparrow vs Song Sparrow

The bold black spot on the chest might be confusing since that’s sometimes considered a field mark specifically for song sparrows, but actually many other sparrows can show that mark.

Psst—Here’s how you can feed native sparrows at bird feeders.

Lincoln’s Sparrow Range

Lincoln’s sparrows can be seen in most areas of the United States and Canada, but can be very uncommon depending on the location and time of year. In summer, these sparrows breed in Canada and parts of the mountain west.

For a larger chunk of the U.S., the Lincoln’s can be spotted during migration or their winter non-breeding grounds, especially in the West. They are less noticeable in the East. Birders in parts of the Southwest and Northwest are outside of this bird’s normal range.

They travel in mixed flocks during migration, so keep your binoculars handy in spring and fall.

What does a dark-eyed junco sound like and look like?

How to Attract Lincoln’s Sparrows

These small, striped ground-foraging birds spend a good portion of their time in dense cover. To attract them to your backyard, plant plenty of shrubs and trees. The branches offer the security that the sparrows need. Also, native plants encourage healthy insect populations for the sparrows to gobble up. Grow seed-bearing plants for these sparrows to feed on during winter.

Next, learn how to identify a white throated sparrow and an American tree sparrow.

Lincoln’s Sparrow Song and Call

Male Lincoln’s sparrows have a very musical song. It’s a rich mix of trills and buzzy notes and lasts for about two seconds. Both males and females belt out a tinny high-pitched call and a series of chips.

Learn the difference between bird songs vs calls.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kenn and Kimberly are the official Birds & Blooms bird experts. They are the duo behind the Kaufman Field Guide series. They speak and lead bird trips all over the world. When they're not traveling, they enjoy watching birds and other wildlife in their Northwest Ohio backyard. Fascinated with the natural world since the age of 6, Kenn has traveled to observe birds on all seven continents, and has authored or coauthored 14 books about birds and nature, including include seven titles in his own series, Kaufman Field Guides, designed to encourage beginners by making the first steps in nature study as easy as possible. His next book, The Birds That Audubon Missed, is scheduled to be published by Simon & Schuster in May 2024. Kenn is a Fellow of the American Ornithological Society, and has received the American Birding Association’s lifetime achievement award twice. Kimberly is the Executive Director of Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO) in northwest Ohio. She became the Education Director in 2005 and Executive Director in 2009. As the Education Director, Kimberly played a key role in building BSBO’s school programs, as well as the highly successful Ohio Young Birders Club, a group for teenagers that has served as a model for youth birding programs. Kimberly is also the co-founder of The Biggest Week In American Birding, the largest birding festival in the U.S. Under Kimberly’s leadership, BSBO developed a birding tourism season in northwest Ohio that brings an annual economic impact of more than $40 million to the local economy. She is a contributing editor to Birds & Blooms Magazine, and coauthor of the Kaufman Field Guides to Nature of New England and Nature of the Midwest. Accolades to her credit include the Chandler Robbins Award, given by the American Birding Association to an individual who has made significant contributions to education and/or bird conservation. In 2017, she received a prestigious Milestone Award from the Toledo Area YWCA. Kimberly serves on the boards of Shores and Islands Ohio and the American Bird Conservancy.