Most of the small birds such as the finches, gnatcatchers, and sparrows are members of the one hundred and eighteen families found in the largest taxonomic order of birds; the PASSERIFORMES (pronounced pas-ser-i-FOR-meez).
The sparrows and related birds are placed in the Emberizidae (pronounced ehm-beh-RIH-zih-dee), a group of one hundred and sixty-three species in twenty-six genera found in Eurasia, Africa, and the New World.
One hundred and fifteen species of sparrows and sparrow-like birds in twenty-three genera are found in North America. In addition to sparrows, the juncos and towhees are also members of this family.
Sparrows, juncos, and towhees are known for their terrestrial behavior, cheery songs, and in the case of sparrows, challenges to their identification due to similarities in appearance of several species. Dark-eyed Juncos and various sparrows are also well known visitors to feeders during the winter months.
Members of the Emberizidae are small, plump birds with short, finch-like bills adapted to cracking open seeds. Their wings are generally short and their tails and legs average in length.
Except for small patches of yellow or white on the heads of a few species, bright colors are not a hallmark of this family. Brown, white, and gray plumages with streaked and spotted patterns are commonplace for the primarily dull colored sparrows. However there are exceptions, such as the boldly patterned plumages of black, white, and tan plumages displayed by the juncos, the vibrant black and burnt orange of the towhees, and the rich reddish-brown tones of the longspurs' breeding plumages.
At least one species of sparrow, junco, or towhee can be found in most every habitat in North America. Most species are birds of weedy fields, scrub, second growth, and non-forest habitats such as desert, grassland, and marsh. The few species adapted to woodlands frequent the thick undergrowth at forest openings and edges.
Like other short distance migrants, most members of the Emberizidae migrate later in fall, earlier in spring, and often show up at feeders during the winter. Some species, such as the Fox Sparrow, practice "leap frog" migration with more northerly populations migrating further south in the winter.
Outside of the breeding season, sparrows and other members of this family flock together for protection from predators. All are generally terrestrial birds that forage on the ground for seeds and arthropods.
Sparrows, towhees, and juncos are for the most part common birds with plenty of available habitat. Emberizidae species that have declined and are endangered in many parts of their range are those that require grasslands, such as the Grasshopper and Henslow's Sparrows, and one species, the Bachman's Sparrow, which requires open pine forests with a grassy understory.
The Worthen's Sparrow is an enigmatic species historically recorded in the southwestern United States. Rare, little known, and difficult to find in its known Mexican range, this species may be more adapted to grassland habitats that have disappeared or been drastically altered since European settlement. One of the most commonly seen sparrows in the United States, the House Sparrow, is not a member of this family and, as an imported species, is actually more closely related to African weaver finches and European sparrows than North American sparrows.