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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9–7.1 in
15–18 cm
Weight
1.1–1.2 oz
30–33 g
Relative Size
Smaller than an American Robin; larger than a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Other Names
  • Bruant à couronne dorée (French)
  • Garrión corona dorada (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • This sparrow is one of the least known of our songbirds, particularly on its northern breeding grounds. It has been the subject of only a few laboratory and field studies, so most of what we know about it comes from scattered notes in scientific journals.
  • Miners in the Yukon at the turn of the twentieth century woefully referred to the Golden-crowned Sparrow as the “no gold here” bird, because its song resembled that depressing phrase. They also interpreted its song to say “I’m so tired,” prompting them to dub the bird “Weary Willie.”
  • The Golden-crowned Sparrow arrives earlier and stays longer on its California wintering grounds than almost any other bird species.
  • When day length increases in the spring, the Golden-crowned Sparrow detects the change through photoreceptors (light-sensitive cells). Its body responds by putting on fat and getting an urge to migrate.
  • The oldest Golden-crowned Sparrow on record was at least 10 years, 6 months old. It was caught by a bird bander in California and released.

Habitat


Scrub

The Golden-crowned Sparrow breeds in shrubby tundra habitats near the coast or in the mountains in Alaska and northwestern Canada. It tends to live near willows, short conifers, and alders, and it gravitates toward moving or standing water. During migration and winter this sparrow spends time in brush, riparian thickets, chaparral, and gardens. It winters from southern British Columbia to northern Baja California, mostly west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. Golden-crowned Sparrows may wander widely, sometimes showing up all the way on the eastern edge of the continent.

Food


Insects

During winter and migration, Golden-crowned Sparrows eat many kinds of seeds, including seeds from geranium, pigweed, starwort, dock, brome grass, sumac, nightshade, and knotweed. They also eat fruits (apple, grape, elderberry, olive), grains (oats, wheat, barley, corn), buds, flowers, and plant sprouts. The animal portion of their diet includes ants, wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, crane flies, and termites. Often flocking with other members of their own species, Golden-crowned Sparrows hop on the ground and glean food or scratch leaf litter in cultivated fields, orchards, lawns, and gardens. Their diet in summer is not well known, but it probably includes fruits, seeds, spiders, and insects. In summer they usually forage alone or with a mate—though occasionally in small groups with White-crowned Sparrows or Dark-eyed Juncos—often near alder, willow, and evergreen habitat.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.8–1 in
2–2.5 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.5–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
11–13 days
Nestling Period
9–11 days
Egg Description
Smooth, pale blue to greenish blue, speckled with reddish brown and pale gray.
Condition at Hatching
Feeble and uncoordinated, with closed eyes and sparse gray down.
Nest Description

The nest is a thick cup of twigs, dry bark flakes, moss, ferns, leaves, and coarse grasses, set in a depression. The inside of the cup is a few inches across and an inch and a half deep. It may be lined with fine grasses, ptarmigan feathers, and hair from moose, deer, or caribou. The female collects nest material while the male follows her around and sings.

Nest Placement

Ground

Golden-crowned Sparrows often build their nests on the ground and disguise them with ferns, grasses, forbs and overhanging branches of low birch, willow, or alder shrubs. Sometimes they build nests in shrubs or small trees, particularly when the ground is still covered with snow. Nests lie within territories established by the males, but it’s not known whether males or females choose the specific nest site.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Golden-crowned Sparrows spend much of their time on the ground or among low branches. They make direct, low flights with fast wingbeats from one patch of shrubbery to the next, and fly down or run into vegetation when alarmed. In winter flocks they commonly squabble over food, raising their crown feathers and running at each other. In the summer they seem to be less aggressive while feeding, though they do defend breeding territories (about 2.5 acres in size). Golden-crowned Sparrows pair up in monogamous relationships, though they have been observed cheating on their mates. At feeding sites, Golden-crowned Sparrows defer to California Thrashers, California Towhees, and sometimes Song Sparrows. Their predators include feral cats, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Harriers, Merlins, Northern Pygmy-Owls, Western Screech-Owls, Northern Shrikes, Loggerhead Shrikes, Barn Owls, and Columbian ground squirrels.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Golden-crowned Sparrow's global breeding population is estimated to be 4 million by Partners in Flight, with 100 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 14 percent breeding in Canada, and 6 percent wintering in Mexico. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates a 10 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List. The Golden-crowned Sparrow has been so little studied that no one knows how it is responding to human influences. Records from the Christmas Bird Count suggest that the wintering population has risen since the 1960s. The sparrow’s remote breeding sites will probably safeguard it from direct human impacts for the near future, although it’s not known how climate change is altering its subarctic habitat. On its wintering grounds the sparrow seems to be most abundant on federally owned land, protecting it somewhat from effects of habitat disturbance. In the early twentieth century, orchard owners made some efforts to control the numbers of Golden-crowned Sparrows, but the species is no longer considered an agricultural pest.

Credits

Range Map Help

Golden-crowned Sparrow Range Map
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Migration

Medium-distance migrant. The entire population migrates in flocks from its northern breeding grounds, down the West Coast to the wintering grounds, and back up the same route in the spring.

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.