White-Crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys
Family

Emberizidae (sparrows, longspurs, buntings) in the order Passeriformes

Description

The white-crowned sparrow is a large sparrow with a bold black-and-white striped crown, a clear gray breast, and a pink beak. Adult upperparts are reddish brown with dark streaks, with whitish wing bars. The head is gray, with a striking black-and-white striped crown with two black crown stripes, and a black eye line. The bill is light yellow to pink, with a dusky tip, and with no yellow spot next to the bill. Underparts are clear gray with a whitish throat. Immatures have gray and rusty crown stripes, the crown often appearing a solid reddish brown. Adults and immatures have a short crest that gives the rear of the crown a square look (not rounded as in the white-throated sparrow). The song is variable and usually consists of whistles and trills. The call is a tseet or a sharp, alarmed pink or chink.

Similar species: The white-throated sparrow, a close relative, has a white throat and a small patch of yellow in front of the eye. Immature white-crowned sparrows lack the prominent eye ring of the field sparrow, and lack the central breast spot of the American tree sparrow.

Size

Length: 7 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail).

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White-Crowned Sparrow and Northern Cardinal
Immature White-Crowned Sparrow and Northern Cardinal

White-Crowned Sparrow

Image of a white-crowned sparrow
Audio of a white-crowned sparrow in the wild.

White-Crowned Sparrow

A small brown bird with a bold black and white crown stands on a mulched path.
White-Crowned Sparrow in Defiance, MO
Habitat and conservation

White-crowned sparrows forage on the ground for insects and seeds in brushy hedgerows, woodland edges, weedy fields, and fallow agricultural fields. They are more commonly found in tangles along field edges than around bird feeders. Thick brush is important in attracting white-crowned sparrows to your backyard. They are usually in the company of the closely related white-throated sparrows.

Foods

A wide variety of insects and seeds. They typically forage on the ground. Like towhees and fox sparrows, they scratch in leaf litter by kicking both feet backward at the same time.

image of White-Crowned Sparrow  distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide.

Status

Uncommon winter resident; common transient (spring and fall migrant). Their numbers in Missouri peak during migration. The white-crowned is one of our most common and widespread winter sparrows.

Life cycle

White-crowned sparrows can be found in Missouri from early October through mid-May, when they have all flown to northern Canada for breeding. There, in tundra, or on the edges of boreal forests, or in alpine meadows, they build cup nests on the ground or in low shrubs. Clutches comprise 3–7 eggs; they can have up to 3 broods in the short summer season before they fly south again.

Human connections

Animal behavior scientists have done many studies on white-crowned and white-throated sparrows, learning a great deal about how and when young males acquire their songs. It turns out they learn regional "dialects" of their species' song, during an early developmental stage when they are especially capable of learning songs. This is very much like the "window" in human childhood development when languages can be learned rapidly.

Ecosystem connections

The white-crowned sparrow has several regional subspecies across its huge North American range. It is closely related to the white-throated sparrow, which is easily guessed from their similar large size, spiffy head coloration, and habit of forming flocks in scrubby areas. Other sparrows in this genus include Harris's sparrow with its central distribution, and, on the west coast of North America, the golden-crowned sparrow.