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The Birds of Spring: White-crowned Sparrows

Which birds might I see today? White-crowned Sparrows

White-crowned Sparrow
All of these photographs are of adult White-crowned Sparrows during migration.

Sometime in April my phone might ring and someone will ask, “I have lots of these birds in my yard I’ve never seen before; they have black and white stripes on their heads; what are they?” They are White-crowned Sparrows,

and thousands upon thousands of them will migrate through our valley northwards sometime in April. The birds you see in your yard one day might well be gone and different ones there the next.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow snacking on fresh buds.

White-crowned Sparrows are large as sparrows go, about 7”/~18cm. Both males and females have the black and white stripes on their head while younger birds have brownish head markings. Studies have shown that a male with crisp bright black and white markings is an alpha male, which will mate with several females. The bird’s breast is an unmarked pale grey, the beak is small, usually orange-pink in colour and the back is an unremarkable mottled brown with two indistinct white wing bars on each wing.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow surveying (rear view).

These birds are usually found in brushy and weedy habitats, generally not in woods. They build a bulky nest like a cup of grass on or near the ground in low bushes, lay 4 – 6 eggs and often raise 2 or 3 broods a year. Somewhat surprisingly the lifespan of these birds is up to 13 years, similar to that of House Sparrows and Robins.

They are common in the west from BC south to California and the western mountains, but are also widespread across the boreal forest and tundra limit from Alaska eastward to Quebec.

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow foraging on the ground.

Most of their foraging for food is on the ground and they eat seeds, insects, fruit, buds and fresh grass or leaves. Spiders are a favourite but they also like some ‘salad’ with their meat! In migration they will often turn up under garden bird feeders, to glean fallen seeds other birds have dropped. Their song is a rising and falling buzzy whistle. One friend described it to me as saying, “I want to go wee wee now!”

White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow gleaning under a feeder.

Some White-crowned Sparrows do winter in our valley. I saw my first ones this year early in January. Look for them in low scrubby bushes, tangled weedy fields, overgrown suburban gardens or grasslands. Most of these birds, however, winter further south than here and those are the birds you see moving north in spring. They will spread out across the west and north, many of them breeding here, others seeking far northern willow thickets in which to set up nursery. Enjoy the procession while it lasts. By early to mid-May it will be over.

Pam Laing, Okanagan birder


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