Our Most Common ‘Snowbird’, the White-crowned Sparrow

The White-crowned Sparrow signals the arrival of fall in SaddleBrooke, Arizona (photo Bob Bowers)

The White-crowned Sparrow signals the arrival of fall in SaddleBrooke, Arizona (photo Bob Bowers)

We commonly think of migrating birds as those who leave their winter homes in Mexico and other warmer climates to fly north each spring to nest, either summering in our neighborhood (Hooded Orioles and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, for example), or passing through on their way to more distant summer grounds (like Rufous Hummingbirds).  What we sometimes forget is that our climate is just as acceptable a winter home as Mexico to some migrating birds.  Like our neighbors who leave SaddleBrooke each spring for their northern summer home and stay there till fall, these winter residents truly are ‘snowbirds.’

Brown-striped crowns are juveniles, while adults show black and white, both male and female (photo Bob Bowers)

Brown-striped crowns are juveniles, while adults show black and white, both male and female (photo Bob Bowers)

Most of the water birds we see at our golf course ponds fall into this group, which explains their absence during the summer.  Among the most common of these are Mallards, teals, Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, Gadwalls and American Wigeons.  More elusive winter migrants include Red-naped Sapsuckers, Gray Flycatchers and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  And although House Sparrows and Black-throated Sparrows live here year-round, most of our sparrow population prefer to summer in the north.  The sparrows that arrive in fall to spend the winter here include Brewer’s, Chipping, Vesper, Lark, Lincoln’s and the most noticeable and common of all, the White-crowned.

A pomegranate half attracts White-crowned Sparrows and many others (photo Bob Bowers)

A pomegranate half attracts White-crowned Sparrows and many others (photo Bob Bowers)

At our house, the arrival of fall is marked by the arrival of our first White-crowned Sparrow.  Last year it was September 26 and this year it was a week later, October 3.  With a diversified diet that includes seeds, buds, grass, fruits and insects, you’ll probably see them in your yard, but if you want to guarantee it, put sunflower seeds in a tray feeder or hammer a finishing nail into a post and impale half of a pomegranate on it.  They commonly feed together, foraging on the ground, and if you walk the trails around SaddleBrooke or in Catalina State Park, flocks of a dozen or more (often mixed with other sparrows) will fly from the ground to low hanging branches as you approach.

The lore (between eye and bill) is white for the Gambelii subspecies (photo Bob Bowers)

The lore (between eye and bill) is white for the Gambelii subspecies (photo Bob Bowers)

Unlike many of our birds, the females are just as beautiful and striking as the males.  In fact, they look identical.  Both adults have a bright white crown stripe, bordered by ink-black stripes next to white ‘eyebrows’, a gray breast and an orange bill.  Many people mistake the birds with bright black and white striped crowns as males, and the similarly marked birds with brown and buff striped crowns as females, but this is not the case.  Those orange-billed birds with the brown and buff stripes are first-year juveniles whose crown stripes will soon change to white and black.

Subspecies Oriantha have a black lore (photo in Colorado, Bob Bowers)

Subspecies Oriantha have a black lore (photo in Colorado, Bob Bowers)

This is probably the best studied songbird due to its wide distribution across the U.S., Alaska, Canada and Mexico, as well as its conspicuousness and abundance.  Fossil evidence shows the bird has been around since the Pleistocene, and the four subspecies likely arose from glaciation-caused population isolation. At one time, I thought the White-crowned Sparrows we see in summer in the mountains of Colorado were the same birds that show up here in the fall, but I was wrong.  The Colorado birds are the subspecies oriantha, and either remain in Colorado year-round or winter mostly in the eastern part of the southern U.S.  Almost all the White-crowned Sparrows we see here are the subspecies gambelii, which, amazingly, nest thousands of kilometers north, from Alaska across the northern tier of Canadian provinces.  Although the birds we see in SaddleBrooke are nearly always gambelii, occasionally an oriantha shows up (I saw one at my feeder the morning I wrote this).  If you’re getting bored with bridge, golf or basket-weaving, you could try to find an oriantha among the gambelii.  Make a pot of tea, put some bird seed in a feeder near the window and keep your binoculars handy.  Look for a White-crowned Sparrow with a black lore, that space between its eye and bill.  Orianthas have a black lore, while the lores on gambelii  are white.  Or you could go to Colorado, where they’re all oriantha.  On the other hand, maybe basket-weaving isn’t that boring after all.

(This article originally appeared in the November, 2013 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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One Response to Our Most Common ‘Snowbird’, the White-crowned Sparrow

  1. Fascinating! Made me want to consult my “Birds of Illinois” book that says five sub-species of the White-crowned sparrow have been identified. Leucophrys and gambelii are the two found in Illinois. But, of course, a book about Illinois birds would not list the others.

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