You see a sparrow size bird on the ground scratching with their feet on the ground as they forage for seeds. It has black and white stripes on the crown of its head. How do I tell if it is a White-crowned or White-throated sparrow?
At a distance it may be difficult to tell at first. A pair of binoculars will make identifying this bird easier. At first glance you can tell it is a native sparrow because they all scratch the ground for seeds much like a chicken. On the other hand house sparrows, which are actually Weaver Finches from Europe, do not scratch the ground as native sparrows do but sweep with their bill to turn up seeds. Here is the difference between these two birds. Once you know the field markings it should be easy to tell which sparrow you are viewing.
First impressions of White-crowned Sparrows tend to be of a plain, pale-gray bird; next your eye is drawn to the very bold black-and-white stripes on the head and the pale pink or yellow bill. Learn this bird’s size and shape so you’re ready to identify young birds that have brown, not black, markings on the head.
White-throated Sparrows are brown above and gray below with a striking head pattern. The black-and-white-striped head is augmented by a bright white throat and yellow between the eye and the gray bill. You’ll also see a less boldly marked form, known as “tan-striped,” with a buff-on-brown face pattern instead of white-on-black.