Our Melodic Visitors from the North

Along the Path: A Young Person’s Guide to Exploring Nature

By Susan Rothrock Deo Photo by Robin Young

I heard the sweet whistle, followed by a melodic trill. The lovely birdsong transported me to the north woods. But I was walking down my street in Southern California! I wasn’t familiar with this song, so I noted the bird’s size (medium), its vague coloring (brown) and short, somewhat stubby, bill. Maybe it’s a sparrow? One of my favorites from the spring, the white- crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia  leucophrys, had recently returned. I’d seen them foraging for seed scattered under my feeder and digging in the native plant garden at Point Vicente Interpretive Center. I looked up their song in my bird app and–bingo! I was right! Let me share some of what I learned.

Our white-crowned sparrows go to ALASKA in the summer! Can you imagine this little sparrow traveling 2,600 miles between its summer and winter homes? 

There are white-crowned sparrows over much of North America. The four or five subspecies have somewhat different coloration, songs and habitats. Our long-distance traveler is Zonotrichia leucophrys gambeli (Genus, species and subspecies). The central coast subspecies, Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli, does not migrate.

Gambeli is six to seven inches long, with a wingspan of eight to nine inches. It has two black stripes running front to back along the crown of its head and behind its eyes, with a bright white stripe, or “crown,” down the middle. The younger birds and females have a brownish stripe instead of white. Gambeli has a gray breast and belly, thin white bands on its wings, yellowish legs, and a small pinkish-orange bill. Nuttalli does not migrate and has a yellower bill and brown tinge to its belly. Their songs are somewhat different also. 

Juvenile white-crowned sparrow at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve           Photo by Beverly Gates
Juvenile white-crowned sparrow at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Beverly Gates

A young sparrow learns to sing from the general population of white-crowned sparrows in his region. If he lives on the border between two subspecies, he might learn both “dialects,” like you might learn some Spanish if you lived near a Spanish-speaking neighborhood.  

The songs of the white-crowned sparrow are among the most studied sounds in all animal behavior. One ornithologist (a bird scientist) says the white-crowned sparrow is like the white lab rat of ornithology.

Males do most of the singing, but females also sing on occasion. White-crowned sparrows live primarily in scrub habitat: in the tundra they like boreal scrub and forest edges, in Southern California they prefer chaparral, gardens and parks, especially with close-by bushes where they can hide or perch to avoid predators. Except during nesting season, they forage in flocks. Seeds are a favorite food, especially in winter. In the summer they eat vegetable matter, including fruit and flowers. They feed their nestlings seeds and insects.

The males arrive in the breeding area first. Pairs build a cup-shaped nest. The female incubates four to five eggs, creamy colored with a greenish tinge and brown speckles. The eggs hatch in about 12 days. The male helps feed the nestlings, which fledge 10 days later. They reach mature size in one month.

A few more interesting facts about our intrepid traveler:

  • One migrating white-crowned sparrow was tracked moving 300 miles in a single night. 
  • They share their territories with fox sparrows, but chase chipping sparrows and dark-eyed juncos away. 
  • The oldest recorded white-crowned sparrow in California lived for 13 years, four months.
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