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    White-crowned Sparrow Life History


    Habitat ScrubWhite-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.Back to top


    Food InsectsWhite-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.Back to top


    Nest Placement

    Nest GroundWhite-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.

    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.

    Nesting Facts
    Clutch Size:3-7 eggs
    Number of Broods:1-3 broods
    Egg Length:0.8-0.9 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.
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    Behavior Ground ForagerWhite-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.Back to top


    Conservation Low ConcernWhite-crowned Sparrows are numerous and widespread but populations declined by about 29% between 1966 and 2012, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 60 million with 80% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 59% in Canada, and 18% wintering in Mexico. They rate a 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List. Back to top

    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 out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

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    Chilton, Glen, M. C. Baker, C. D. Barrentine and M. A. Cunningham. 1995. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

    Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder's handbook. A Field Guide to the natural history of North American birds, including all species that regularly breed north of Mexico. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.

    Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2015.2. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2015.

    North American Bird Conservation Initiative. 2014. The State of the Birds 2014 Report. US Department of Interior, Washington, DC, USA.

    Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database. 2017.

    Sibley, David Allen. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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