White-crowned Sparrow

A commonly found bird in North America, the white-crowned sparrow is anything but common…it is extraordinary. I recently watched one in my friends’ garden sipping water under an apple tree, and was reminded of the uniqueness of this songbird.

Except for Florida and parts of the southern east coast, they can be found across America, Canada, and Mexico. Although we have them year-round on the California coast, the white-crowned sparrow migrates in many parts of the continent. Range map at end.

They are a dapper bird, as you can see, but it is their song that sets them apart.

As a brief primer, I remind you that every songbird species has their own song–a series of sounds like call notes, warnings, scoldings, for example; and in addition, a song. The song is generally used for mating and territorial purposes, and is instantly recognizable to bird enthusiasts. In fact, that is how we often identify birds when we cannot see them.

I can stand in a forest or a parking lot, and know exactly what species of avian friends are in my presence, without opening my eyes. It took me roughly five years to accomplish bird identification by sound. If I am outside my home state or country, it takes more study.

But for white-crowned sparrows, the game is different.

The songs of white-crowned sparrows are one of the most studied in all of ornithology, due to the unusual variations in dialect.

This one species, which has five sub-species, has different song variations, or dialects, depending on where they are. Just like humans have different dialects depending on location, so do the white-crown sparrows.

I find it especially thrilling to travel to different parts of the continent and hear different white-crowned sparrow songs.

Males do most of the singing in this species, though there are singing females that have been noted. They learn their original song, in their first two or three months of life, from their natal neighborhood. Then they may migrate, and have offspring, and the new song distribution begins. There are many elaborate theories, studies, and graduate papers about the different dialects.

White-crowned Sparrow info

Here are four different recordings of a white-crowned sparrow song that I found in xeno-canto.org. You can hear how different the songs are (click on link, then on red and gray arrow).

Recorded in Manitoba, Canada

Recorded in Alaska, Denali NP, USA

Recorded in San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA

Recorded in Mississippi, USA

The song we hear in the Bay Area is recorded above, and that’s what I hear outside my window. I have been hearing it as I composed this post. We have a juvenile on the grounds, who only sings half of the song…he’s still learning.

The appearance of a white-crowned sparrow differs slightly depending again on where you are, most notably the bill color. All photos here were taken in California, the nuttalli sub-species.

It is difficult to differentiate the sub-species by sight alone, because the variations are slight. These minute details are what nerdy birders (like me) like to stand around discussing.

Immatures look different than adults, with brown and gray head stripes, as you can see below.

With their handsome black-and-white-striped plumage and clear, resonating song, I find their place on this earth especially sweet.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander

Zonotrichia leucophrys map.svg
Range map White-crowned Sparrow. Orange=breeding, Yellow=migration, Blue=non-breeding, Purple=Year-round. Courtesy Wikipedia.

72 thoughts on “White-crowned Sparrow

    • Thank you, Craig. Whenever a writer uses the word “stuff,” I like to share this brief story. Once when I was living in San Francisco, there had been a garage sale next door to my apt. bldg. There were some things left over after the sale, and a box was left out on the curb with a sign that said, “Free Stuff.” I learned it was where Anne Rice lived, and I was absolutely thrilled, as an aspiring writer and AR fan, that she would use the word “stuff” on her sign. It seemed like such a freedom to me. I’m sure you will understand, being an accomplished crafter of words. Many thanks.

    • I’m so glad you had a chance to listen to the four white-crowned sparrow songs, Janet. There is song wherever we turn, if we listen…even if it’s just recordings on xeno-canto. My warmest thanks and smiles, and wishing you a lovely weekend, too, my friend.

    • I agree, Walt, the white-crowned species is a wonderful species. I can usually count on you to know most bird species, for all the time you spend outdoors enjoying nature. I’m glad you appreciated the post, and I thank you for your words today.

  1. I’m not sure if we have the white-crowned sparrow here (we probably do, but I haven’t made a note of it), but I do know we have the golden-crowned sparrow which passes through here and stages for a couple of weeks on its way north and then south again. Different song, but the birds look very similar. Thanks for this post. I love the photo of the sparrow with his mouth wide open, singing his joy to the world.

    • Your comment gave me a chuckle, Jan. These days, with everyone so upset with Covid and all that is going on, shouting seems to prevail. But fortunately it was just a sweet sparrow song, filling the air with music. My warm thanks.

  2. How fascinating Jet! We have them in abundance around here and they certainly add to the birdsong. I must listen out to hear them more clearly. Thank you for encouraging me to go outside more 😊

  3. Jet I think it is incredible that you can identify birds and sub species just by listening. I was intrigued by the different recordings. Perhaps it is my imagination but the one recorded in Manitoba did seem recognizable. Having grown up in a neighbouring province it would make sense I guess. Loved the idea that you were
    listening to the birds as you wrote this post. There is something very calming about that vision. Hoping you and Athena are both safe and well.

    • Thanks so much, Sue. I enjoyed your comment and compliment. I have a sharp ear and have worked really hard on birding by ear for decades now, and you wouldn’t believe what a rich existence it has brought me…always knowing who my bird friends are around me, even when someone is talking to me or I’m in the car idling at a stop light. I doubt it was merely your imagination recognizing the white-crowned sparrow in your territory. Athena and I are home this weekend, after two weekends of evacuating, and it is so incredibly delightful. The windows and doors are open, too, which hasn’t happened since Aug. 17. My warmest thanks and cheer to you and Dave.

  4. One of my favourite birds, and one of the few songs I can recognize locally. I enjoyed listening to the variations you linked to. Given all the recent “sound and fury” etc. we’ve been subjected to, this was a welcome and soothing change – thanks, Jet!

    • Hey, PC, I am delighted to hear you recognize your local white-crowned sparrow in sight and sound. I’m glad, too, that you had a chance to listen to the other dialects. It is a fascinating aspect of nature, at least for me. Glad I could offer some serenity here, too. I sure enjoyed spending time at your site today, my friend, and hope you continue to have a Happy Thanksgiving.

    • I would imagine your garden has some lively white-crowned sparrow activity in the warm weather, and glad I could clarify why they aren’t always around. I enjoyed the range map, too, they are indeed hardy fliers. Thanks so much for your visit today, Eliza.

    • Yours was a fun comment, Janet. I think sparrows are adorable too and I always stop in my path when I am greeted by a white-crowned. Glad you enjoyed our featured friend, thank you.

  5. One of the first sparrows I identified when I started bird watching was the white crowned. Still love to see them and now I’ll pay more attention to their song

    • Yes, the white-crowns are espec. great for identifying because of their characteristic white and black striped heads. Juveniles get a bit tricky, but not once you know. Wonderful to have a sparrow exchange, dear Bill, thanks so much for your visit today and every week, always appreciated.

    • I really liked that juvenile white-crown’s reflection too, Donna. That was one of those photos that was stored in the Sparrow folder of the digital photo library and never thought of again. So I’m glad I had the chance to root around in there and pull out this beauty. Thanks so much for your wonderful comment.

  6. Not being that much of a birder, I’m constantly learning, and now I know that mockingbirds aren’t the only species with multiple songs. I really enjoyed this article, and after listening to the recordings, the one from Mississippi sounded familiar. Of course, with my poor ear, I might be confusing it with another species that lives around here. I’ll have to listen more closely!

    • The mockingbird and thrasher are fascinating species for their vocal repertoires, but I am happy to say the white-crowned sparrow is right up there with them. I’m delighted I could share some of the audio highlights of this incredible bird with you, Linda, and hope you do have the glory of recognizing the white-crowned voice in your Texas adventures.

  7. how incredible that you can identify birds from their songs! i think that is an awesome gift. thank you for yet another informative post, Jet. beautiful photos as always especially the singing sparrow. so delightful! hope you’re safe. 🙂 🙂

    • Always a joy to hear from you, Wilma. Having the gift of sound with the gift of vision for every nearby bird is a great pleasure, thanks for your acknowledgement. Maybe when you are strolling around Mallard Lake one day, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing and hearing a species. Wonderful that you and I both have the pleasure of outdoor joys. My warmest thanks, Wilma.

  8. While I have learned many birds by sound, having to do bird surveys and for my own pleasure, the sparrows tend to elude me. We are also in year-round range, but I rarely see them in my neighborhood. More common at higher elevations. I love that shot of the full-throated singer – magnificent! Glad to hear you are home with the windows open. Do you visit the McCauley library at Cornell? Huge collection of recordings, both audio and video.

    We were camping the past couple days and I got frustrated when I heard a song I didn’t know and couldn’t spot the singer. Still a mystery for now. Had some nice birds I don’t see often: brown creeper and pygmy nuthatch.

    • I enjoyed your comment today, Eilene, thanks so much. I think sparrows are a tricky species when it comes to sound identification, except for the white-crowned and song, and visual identification can be tricky too, due to their similarities and the juveniles. Where I live the white-crowns stay at the lower elevations, but it’s always different wherever you go. I have never visited the McCauley Cornell sound library, but I listen to their recordings when I visit allaboutbirds, good suggestion that I’ll have to try. Fun to hear about the brown creeper and pygmy nuthatch sightings, two really fun birds to watch. I’ve only seen a pygmy nuthatch once, and I worked really hard to find it. Thanks so much.

  9. Pingback: White-crowned Sparrow — Jet Eliot | huggers.ca

  10. Such a joy and privilege to read your engaging account of a humble sparrow. Enjoyed the recordings so much – hearing and seeing the differences. I admire and envy your skill and devotion. And there are some amazing photos here, as always! (Funny aside, I heard the recordings the first time from the other side of the bed! when Bill was listening. Thought we had a bird in the room. ha)

    • I’m chuckling, Nan, that’s a funny aside. Glad to hear you both clicked on the recordings. Athena has a tone on her phone that is bird song, and when people here it sing, they look around for a bird. Fun to have bird sounds in our life. My love and thanks for this fun comment and visit.

  11. Love this post. So cool that you can identify birds on their song, with your eyes closed. Wonderful! I read that this bird apparently changed its song during the last few months!

    • I’m glad I could introduce you to the white-crowned sparrow, Steve. With their sweet song and handsome head markings, one might pop out of the wildflowers one day and show off for you. Many thanks.

  12. I do love these bright, cheerful little ones. I am so terrible at remembering bird sounds/songs. The best I can do is that sharp metallic zing sound of our Anna’s doing it’s mating or territorial swoop. I’ve had to call Eric outside to tell me what that strange sound is until I finally recognize the agitated hummingbird warning me away from HIS feeder!!! Oh… and then there’s the quail chuckles that I’ve come to know and love.

    Thanks, as always, for the delightful narrative and lovely images!

    • Always such a pleasure to hear from you, Gunta, and I enjoyed your learnings about the bird sounds. Funny story about the sound of the agitated hummingbird. I’m glad you enjoyed the white-crowned sparrow post. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope your week is filled with the beauty of nature.

      • Thanking you for that lovely wish. And wishing you much the same! Nothing better than the beauty of nature. I haven’t kept up, but can’t help but wonder how you’re holding out with the fire/smoke situation. Or are you finally getting a break? It literally makes me ache to think of what you’ve been through these past few years. Sending virtual hugs.

      • We had a lovely weekend, even got to be outdoors, but last night the power company shut down our power for two days, due to high winds, so it’s been a bit strained. But we’re doing okay and there is no need to ache for me, we will find a way out of this. In the meantime, I thank you for your kind thoughts and words and hugs, Gunta…much appreciated.

  13. I love that you can identify different birds just by listening to their song. I should have you with me on my morning walks around our neighborhood. 😅 lovely photos of this beautiful bird, Jet. I haven’t seen one of these before.

    • It is really fun to identify birds by their sound, Sylvia. It took some time and study, but it is a tremendous aid toward identifying the birds, espec. those who are skulking in the foliage and difficult to visually spot. I would imagine your morning walks are a tropical cacophony, how marvelous. Many thanks.

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