White-Crowned Sparrow

Photo by Gary Grant

By Tom Dennis

Zonotrichia leucophrys

The White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, passes through the Blue Water Area on its migration route every spring and fall.  Since we are very near the northern boundary of its winter territory we can expect them, not only starting in late-September for several days, but also throughout the winter during mild years. This is a strikingly beautiful sparrow that is relatively easy to identify and one of a few sparrows that we have here during the winter to brighten our days (at least emotionally). Let’s take a closer look to see where they can be seen, heard, and, how you can attract them to your yard.

White-crowned Sparrows are medium-sized birds and one of our largest sparrows. With a body length of 7.5 inches and weight of one ounce, they are nearly double the size of our diminutive, summer resident Chipping Sparrows. White-crowned Sparrow adults have a solid, pale grey neck, throat and undersides with a reddish-brown back and wings. The wings show two white bars that are evident in all postures. Their head coloring is uniquely striped black and white with a white middle stripe and two white eyebrow stripes, bordered with black stripes. Immature birds have a light-brown head with darker brown stripes. The typical song starts with two pure tone whistles followed by a short series of complex sounds that can include buzzy vibrato and trills. Young males learn the song basics from the generalized song environment of their birth neighborhood and therefore sing in dialects. Bird living on dialect borders are often bilingual! This is much different from White-throated Sparrows whose typical song shows little variation amongst individual birds. Females sing occasionally, reserving their quieter song to contest breeding territory or a winter food source.  The alarm call, made by both sexes, is a high, metallic “chip, chip, chip.” I encourage you to listen to the song on a computer device to enhance your appreciation.

They breed from Alaska and Northern Canada as well as in the Northern Rocky Mountain areas of the United States. Their winter range extends throughout most of the United States, including the Pacific Northwest, and extends south into Central Mexico. The scientific name is from Ancient Greek. The genus name Zonotrichia is from zone “band”, and thrix, “hair”, and the species epithet is from leukos, “white” and ophrus, “eyebrow”…so, easy to remember, right! They forage on the ground or in low vegetation and eat mainly seeds and insects.  They have a “double scratch” hopping behavior unique to themselves and Juncos whereby they scratch and quickly hop backward to grab whatever food morsels are uncovered.

White-crowned Sparrows are champions of endurance and therefore are being studied extensively to see if man can benefit. A single migrating adult was tracked 300 miles in a single night and Alaskan birds migrate 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California. They stay awake for up to two weeks without sleep during migration. They are also peculiar in sharing territories with Fox Sparrows but chase away Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.

You can attract this beautiful species to your yard by planting groups of dense shrubs and allowing leaf litter and organic debris to remain during migration and the winter. Bird feeders located close to shrubs allow them to “double scratch” for seeds dropped by other birds. If you don’t have shrubs already in place a brush pile will suffice. Remember, an insect-friendly habitat will help this and other bird species thrive.

If you wish to learn more about birds you are welcome to attend Blue Water Audubon meetings held at The Point, 5085 Lakeshore Rd, in Fort Gratiot.  Our next meeting includes a presentation on “Owls in Our Culture” by Jamie Platt and will be held November 7th starting at 6:45 PM.  Please visit our Facebook page, “Blue Water Audubon Society”, and be sure to friend us.

Tom Dennis is a free-lance writer, passionate birder, zoologist, creation scientist, gardener, and naturalist.

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