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Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia atricapilla ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The large, handsome Golden-crowned Sparrow is a common bird of weedy or shrubby lowlands and city edges in winter along the Pacific coast. Though it’s familiar to many during winter, Golden-crowned Sparrows vanish for the summer into tundra and shrublands from British Columbia to Alaska, where little is known of its breeding habits. Gold-rush miners took cold comfort from this bird’s melancholy song, which seems to reflect the bleak beauty of its surroundings.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    These are large, long-tailed sparrows with small heads and short but stout, seed-eating bills.

  • Color Pattern

    In summer, adult Golden-crowned Sparrows are streaked brown above and smooth gray to brown below, with a black crown and bright-yellow forehead. Winter and immature Golden-crowned Sparrows are duller, with brown replacing black on the head and less obvious yellow on the crown.

  • Behavior

    Golden-crowned Sparrows feed on seeds and insects on the ground and in low vegetation. They whistle their slow, mournful-sounding songs from high perches and nest in dense, low vegetation. In migration and winter, they gather in loose flocks and mix with other sparrows, especially White-crowned Sparrows.

  • Habitat

    Golden-crowned Sparrows are most visible during migration and winter, when they frequent forest edge, shrubs, chaparral, and backyards of the West Coast. They nest much farther north, in low, shrubby areas of tundra or at the edges of boreal forests.

Range Map Help

Golden-crowned Sparrow Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Golden-crowned Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Large, long-tailed sparrow
    • Stout, conical bil
    • Boldly patterned crown with golden-yellow patch bordered by black
    • © Tim Lenz, Alaska, May 2012
  • First winter

    Golden-crowned Sparrow

    First winter
    • Stocky, long-tailed sparrow
    • Small head
    • Small golden-yellow patch on forehead
    • Stout gray bill
    • © Simon Richards, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, October 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Golden-crowned Sparrow

    Breeding adult
    • Large, stocky sparrow
    • Long tail
    • Crown boldly patterned with black and yellow
    • Plain gray/tan underparts
    • © Simon Richards, Delta, British Columbia, Canada, December 2012
  • Nonbreeding adukt

    Golden-crowned Sparrow

    Nonbreeding adukt
    • Large and long-tailed
    • Small head
    • Faded yellow patch on forehead in winter with weaker black borders
    • © Cameron Rognan, Arcata, California, October 2006

Similar Species

Similar Species

Immature White-crowned Sparrows lack golden forehead patches and have more contrasting head patterns than Golden-crowned Sparrows. White-crowned Sparrows of any age have more colorful bills (usually pink or yellow-orange) than the dull, grayish bills of Golden-crowned Sparrows. White-throated Sparrows also have a stronger head pattern than Golden-crowned Sparrows, with crisp white throats, black-and-white head stripes, and yellow before the eye. Song Sparrows can be found in similar habitat to Golden-crowned Sparrows, but are reddish-brown and gray overall, with dark-streaked underparts.

Backyard Tips

Golden-crowned Sparrows will eat seeds from ground feeders as well as fruits, buds, and flowers from garden plants. Be watchful, though, because they might also nibble on your cabbages, beets, and peas.

Find This Bird

Between fall and spring, look for this large sparrow in shrublands and weedy fields of the West Coast. It might be hopping around on the ground while scratching through leaf litter, perching to eat seeds in weedy vegetation, sometimes singing even in winter. To see this bird during summer, you’ll need to visit the wilds of Alaska and far western Canada.