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.
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).
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