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White-crowned Sparrow Life History

Habitat

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

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

Nesting

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

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

Conservation Low Concern

White-crowned Sparrows are numerous and widespread, and populations held steady between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 79 million and rates them 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern.

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Credits

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, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

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. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

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

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

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

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

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