Sparrow & Finch Differences

By Carla Jean McKinney; Updated April 25, 2017
Sparrows and finches are common North American birds

Numerous varieties of sparrows and finches are found throughout North America. Of these, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) and house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) are common not only in open country but in populated areas as well. Although these birds share habitat and food sources, they differ significantly in appearance. Females of both species have similar coloration, but males are characterized by distinctive markings, particularly on the head and neck.

House Sparrows

Found everywhere in North America except Alaska and far northern Canada, the house sparrow is commonly found around human habitations. Male house sparrows have a distinctive black bib, a white underbelly and a rufous neck. Their gray heads and white cheeks distinguish them from other varieties of North American sparrows. Round-headed and short-beaked, house sparrows have been known to live up to 15 years.

House Finch

Originally native to the Southwestern United States and Mexico, the house finch was imported to the East Coast in 1940 and quickly spread throughout North America. Adult male house finches are easily recognized by a red head and breast, which comes from pigments in their food. With brown streaks on the back and a short, notched tail, the house finch is similar in size to the house sparrow but has a flatter head and longer beak. The oldest documented house finch was 11 years old.

The Female of the Species

Although male house sparrows and house finches differ significantly, particularly in the amount of red on the head and breast, the females of these species can be easily confused. Both female house sparrows and house finches are primarily a soft brown, although the female house finch has a striped back. Females of these species can be more easily distinguished by head and beak shape than by coloration.

Diet and Behavior

Although house sparrows and house finches share a range and habitat, they differ in diet and ways of raising young. Both species are seed-eaters, but house finches feed nestlings an exclusively plant-based diet as well, while house sparrows feed their young a protein-rich diet which includes grubs and worms. House sparrows may take food from other birds, but house finches show no aggression toward other species.

About the Author

Carla Jean McKinney has been writing professionally since 1989. She is the author of three nonfiction books and numerous published short works, as well as articles on natural sciences and the environment. Also a photographer, McKinney earned her Master of Arts at the University of Arizona and is a graduate of the Sessions School of Design.