Apart from the falling leaves and temperatures, I am further made aware that we are in the midst of a seasonal change when I see the White Crowned Sparrows appearing in my backyard and at the Nature Center. They can be seen busily double scratching the ground to turn up seeds. A backwards scratch to turn over leaves to reveal seeds, then a forward hop to collect their prize. It is one of North America’s native short-range migratory sparrows that can be found across the Central Great Plains and Midwest during the winter months, showing up in our gardens and under backyard bird feeders. Their summer breeding range is across most of Northern Canada and in parts of some Western States. >In the spring, when they are moving north to their breeding grounds, they appear as if they are capped with a bridal white and charcoal black stripped helmet. In the fall, as with most all birds, the basic plumage is recognizable, but not as colorful. This stripped crown makes it one of the easiest sparrows to identify in North America.
White Crowned Sparrows, as with most all sparrows, forage for food on the ground or in low vegetation. Although they may sometimes take short flights catching insects, they mainly eat seeds of weeds and grasses. During the winter months they may forage in small flocks. Look for White Crowned Sparrows hopping around on the ground near the edges of brushy habitat, or on branches usually below waist level. They’re also found in open areas, especially on their breeding grounds, but often with the safety of shrubs or trees nearby.
The breeding habitat of the White Crowned Sparrow is brushy areas, tundra, alpine meadows, and forest edges across northern Canada and parts of the western United States. When they arrive at the breeding grounds the male and female will pair up then wait for the remaining snows to melt before nest construction. They are separated during the winter months, but most will join back together to rear a new family.
The female White Crowned will construct the nest. In sparsely vegetated areas in may be located on the ground, hidden by plant matter. Along forest edges it is typically located 1 to 10 feet above the ground in a shrub. She will build it in a cupped fashion using a variety of materials such as twigs, coarse grasses, pine needles, dead leaves, moss and bark. The interior of the nest, which is roughly 5 inches wide and 2 inches deep, is then lined with hair and fine grass. It may take as long as 10 days for construction. Once the nest has been completed she will lay 3 to 7 eggs that range from greenish, greenish-blue, to bluish spotted with reddish brown. The female will incubate the eggs for 10 to 14 days. After hatching the young birds will remain in the nest another 8 to 10 days. After they leave the nest they move around very little, and it will take another week before they are able to fly. These young fledglings may stay together for more than two months.
When they begin to show up during the fall it simply amazes me that some of these birds had spent their summer on the fringes of the arctic raising a family. And now they are in my backyard gleaning seeds under my bird feeders, picking at the Proso millet in the ground feeders, and dancing through the leaves I left under the shrubs, turning up the remnants of summers bounty.
They are 6 to 7 inches in length having a long tail, weighing in at one ounce. Their faces and under parts are grey. The back and upper parts are tan with dark streaks and wings are brown with wing bars. The conical bill, typical with most seed eating birds, is a pale pink, although it may be yellow in some populations. <p
Fun Facts About White-crowned Sparrows
- Biologists tracked a White-crowned Sparrow migrating up to 300 miles in a single night.
- White-crowned Sparrows that nest in Alaska will travel over 2500 miles to Southern California where they will spend the winter.
- White-crowned Sparrows are particular who they share their nesting territory with, often chasing off Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos.
- Young male White-crowned Sparrows will learn to sing as an adult within the first two months, not from their parent, but from other White-crowns in their area.
- The song of the male White-crown will vary from region to region and many will develop a regional dialect. Sort of like “y’all” and “you all”! Males on the edge of two regions may produce two different songs.
- The oldest recorded White-crowned Sparrow was more than 13 years old.
Wingtips: When talking about sparrows, we are talking about our native sparrows, not the English Sparrow also know as the common House Sparrow. The House Sparrow is a Weaver Finch introduced from England in the mid 1850s. By 1900 it was the most populous bird in North America. As a cavity nesting bird it remains an invasive species, not protected by federal law nor covered under the 1917 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The House Sparrow aggressively competes with many native birds, woodpeckers, nuthatches, and bluebirds to name a few, for nesting sites. They will often destroy the young nestlings of other birds, and at times kill the adults. They should not be encouraged in nest boxes or at bird feeders.