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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

White-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

White-crowned Sparrows appear each winter over much of North America to grace our gardens and favorite trails (they live in parts of the West year-round). The smart black-and-white head, pale beak, and crisp gray breast combine for a dashing look – and make it one of the surest sparrow identifications in North America. Watch for flocks of these sparrows scurrying through brushy borders and overgrown fields, or coax them into the open with backyard feeders. As spring approaches, listen out for this bird’s thin, sweet whistle.

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Keys to identification Help

Sparrows
Sparrows
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    The White-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow with a small bill and a long tail. The head can look distinctly peaked or smooth and flat, depending on the bird’s attitude.

  • Color Pattern

    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.

  • Behavior

    You’ll see White-crowned Sparrows low at the edges of brushy habitat, hopping on the ground or on branches usually below waist level. They’re also found in open ground (particularly on their breeding grounds) but typically with the safety of shrubs or trees nearby.

  • Habitat

    Look for White-crowned Sparrows in places where safe tangles of brush mix with open or grassy ground for foraging. For much of the United States, White-crowned Sparrows are most likely in winter (although two races live year round in the West, along the coast and in the mountains).

Range Map Help

White-crowned Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Immature

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Immature
    • Gray face and nape
    • Head striped gray and reddish
    • Clean gray throat and breast
    • Streaked brown back and wings, thin white wing bars
    • © Tripp Davenport, Uvalde Co, Texas, February 2009
  • Adult

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Adult
    • Bold black and white head stripes
    • Clean gray throat and breast
    • Gray face and nape
    • Pink or orangish bill
    • © Jeff Larsen, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Washington, February 2009
  • Adult Pacific form

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Adult Pacific form
    • Bold black and white head stripes
    • Brown sides and flanks
    • Clean gray throat
    • Yellowish bill
    • © lee.karney2, San Francisco, California, February 2009
  • Adult

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Adult
    • Bold black and white head stripes
    • Clean gray throat and breast
    • Pale brown sides, gray belly
    • Brown and gray streaked back
    • © Linda Williams, Liberty, Missouri, February 2008
  • Immature

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Immature
    • Gray face and nape
    • Head striped gray and reddish
    • Clean gray throat and breast
    • Pink or orangish bill
    • © Linda Williams, Liberty, Missouri, February 2008
  • Adult

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Adult
    • Bold black and white head stripes
    • Clean gray throat and breast
    • © Gregg Lee, Glen Rose, Texas, February 2008
  • Adult

    White-crowned Sparrow

    Adult
    • Brown back streaked with gray
    • Pale brown rump and flanks
    • Gray face and nape
    • © Sharon Hall, Socorro, New Mexico, February 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult tan-striped

    White-throated Sparrow

    Adult tan-striped
    • Similar to juvenile White-crowned Sparrow
    • Yellowish lores
    • White throat
    • Grayish bill
    • Mottled gray chest and brownish sides
    • © Kevin Bolton, North Arlington, New Jersey, February 2009
  • Adult

    White-throated Sparrow

    Adult
    • Similar to adult White-crowned Sparrow
    • Mottled gray chest and brownish sides
    • Bright white throat
    • Black and white striped head with yellow lores
    • Grayish bill
    • © Byard Miller, Pittsburg, New Hampshire, June 2008
  • Juvenile

    Golden-crowned Sparrow

    Juvenile
    • Similar to juvenile White-crowned Sparrow
    • Yellowish crown
    • Very faint eyestripe
    • © katnor1, San Francisco, California, February 2009
  • Adult female

    House Sparrow

    Adult female
    • Similar to immature White-crowned Sparrow
    • No white wingbars
    • Brownish breast and flanks
    • Crown stripes less defined
    • Bill often yellowish
    • © Kevin Bolton, Franklin Lake, New Jersey, November 2008
  • Adult

    Lark Sparrow

    Adult
    • Similar to adult White-crowned Sparrow
    • Distinctive face pattern with rufous cheek and crown stripes
    • Black spot on pale chest
    • © Donald Metzner

Similar Species

The White-throated Sparrow has a bright white throat patch and yellow between the bill and the eyes. They often have a duskier or dingy appearance overall - not as crisp or clean as adult White-crowned Sparrows. Adult Golden-crowned Sparrows have no white on the head, and the crown stripe is dull yellow, not white. Immature Golden-crowned Sparrows usually have some yellow on the crown, helping to distinguish them from immature White-crowned Sparrows, which they closely resemble. Female House Sparrows look a bit like immature White-crowned Sparrows, but they are smaller, shorter tailed, and smaller billed, with an unmarked face and no white on the wing.

Regional Differences

White-crowned Sparrows that breed along the Pacific Coast tend to have yellow bills and duller white head stripes. Birds that breed from Alaska to Hudson Bay tend to have orange bills and white or gray lores. Birds that breed east of Hudson Bay and in the Rockies tend to have pink bills with black lores that merge with the black head stripes.

Backyard Tips

White-crowned Sparrows come to feeders for sunflower and other kinds of seeds – though they may be more likely to stay on the ground eating seeds dropped by other birds. Making a brush pile in your yard is another good way to encourage this species to spend more time in your yard.

Find This Bird

The White-crowned Sparrow is a winter bird across much of the U.S (exceptions are the West Coast and mountains of the West). Start looking for these birds to arrive sometime in September, and they’ll be in fields, along roadsides, in low foliage at trail edges, or hopping around the margins of your yard until March or April.

Get Involved

Keep track of the White-crowned Sparrows at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

What's That Sparrow? ID tips from the Great Backyard Bird Count

Life in the City: How does urban stress affect birds?

Enhance your yard for sparrows and other birds. Visit our web pages on attracting birds.

Top 10 Ways to Help Birds in Cities

You Might Also Like

Free downloadable "Common Feeder Birds" poster from Project FeederWatch (PDF)

White-crowned Sparrow from Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds (1968)