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Golden-crowned Sparrow Life History


ScrubThe 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.Back to top


InsectsDuring 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundGolden-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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-5 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:0.8-1.0 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.
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Ground ForagerGolden-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.Back to top


Low Concern

Partners in Flight estimates the Golden-crowned Sparrow's global breeding population at 7.5 million and rates them 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of relatively low conservation concern. The Golden-crowned Sparrow has been so little studied that no one knows how it is responding to human influences but 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 will alter its subarctic habitat. On its wintering grounds, the sparrow seems to be most abundant on federally owned land, protecting it somewhat from 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.

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Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Norment, C. J., Paul Hendricks and R. Santonocito. (1998). Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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