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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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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
5.9–6.3 in
15–16 cm
Wingspan
8.3–9.4 in
21–24 cm
Weight
0.9–1 oz
25–28 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Song Sparrow
Other Names
  • Bruant à couronne blanche (French)
  • Zacatero mixto (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • A young male White-crowned Sparrow learns the basics of the song it will sing as an adult during the first two or three months of its life. It does not learn directly from its father, but rather from the generalized song environment of its natal neighborhood.
  • Because male White-crowned Sparrows learn the songs they grew up with and do not travel far from where they were raised, song dialects frequently form. Males on the edge of two dialects may be bilingual and able to sing both dialects.
  • A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night. Alaskan White-crowned Sparrows migrate about 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California.
  • Scientists interested in movement and energetics have discovered that White-crowned Sparrows can run on a treadmill at a pace of about one-third of a mile an hour without tiring out.
  • White-crowned Sparrows will share their territories with Fox Sparrows, but chase Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos until they leave.
  • Male White-crowned Sparrows do most of the singing, but sometimes females also sing. They usually do this while contesting breeding territories or a winter food source. Their songs are quieter and more variable than male’s songs.
  • The oldest recorded White-crowned Sparrow was 13 years 4 months old.

Habitat


Scrub

White-crowned Sparrows breed in open or shrubby habitats, including tundra, high alpine meadows, and forest edges. Patches of bare ground and grasses are important characteristics. During winter and on migration these birds frequent thickets, weedy fields, agricultural fields, roadsides, and backyards.

Food


Insects

White-crowned Sparrows eat mainly seeds of weeds and grasses, plus considerable numbers of caterpillars, wasps, beetles, and other insects during the summer. They also eat grains such as oats, wheat, barley, and corn, and fruit including elderberries and blackberries.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-3 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.9–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.8 cm
Incubation Period
10–14 days
Nestling Period
8–10 days
Egg Description
Greenish, greenish-blue, or bluish spotted with reddish brown.
Condition at Hatching
Born with only sparse down feathers, eyes closed, weighing about 0.1 ounce.
Nest Description

Females build nests out of twigs, coarse grasses, pine needles, moss, bark, and dead leaves. They line the nest cup with fine grasses and hairs. The finished product is about 5 inches across and 2 inches deep, and takes the female 2-9 days to complete.

Nest Placement

Ground

White-crowned Sparrow nests are typically fairly low, placed 1.5 to 10 feet high in shrubs, particularly for Pacific Coast birds. Across the arctic and subarctic portions of the species’ range, White-crowned Sparrows nest on the tundra and have little choice but to put their nests on the ground, hidden among mats of mosses, lichens, and ground-hugging shrubs.

White-crowned Sparrow Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

White-crowned Sparrow Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

White-crowned Sparrows hop across the ground and through low foliage in brushy habitats. You may see them “double-scratching,” a move they share with towhees involving a quick hop backwards to turn over leaves followed by a forward hop and pounce. When these birds arrive on their breeding grounds males and females quickly pair, then wait until snow has melted enough to begin nest building. At the end of summer the pairs break up and winter separately, but when both members of the pair return the next summer, about two-thirds of the pairs re-form. Young birds move very little for the first few days after they leave the nest, and don’t typically learn to fly until a week or so later. Siblings can stay with each other for more than two months after fledging.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

White-crowned Sparrows are numerous and widespread but populations declined by about 33 percent between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 60 million with 80 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 59 percent in Canada, and 18 percent wintering in Mexico. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

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

Migration

Resident or medium-distance migrant. White-crowned Sparrows that breed in Alaska and arctic Canada spend the winter over much of the continental U.S. and Mexico. Birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate.

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

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

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