Overview

Brief Summary

The White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) breeds in Canada, with the range extending far southward into the United States along the Pacific Coast and in the mountains. White-crowned Sparrows winter mainly in the United States and south to central Mexico. In most of the western United States, they are common during at least part of the year (in the eastern United States, these sparrows are generally uncommon migrants or wintering birds). Outside the breeding season, White-crowned Sparrows are generally present in flocks, which forage on the ground near brushy thickets. Breeding habitat includes brushy dwarf willow thickets at the edge of the tundra, bushy clearings in northern forests, scrub just below the timberline, chaparral, and well-wooded suburbs along the Pacific coast. In the winter, White-crowned Sparrows are also found in hedgerows, overgrown fields, and desert washes.

White-crowned Sparrows feed mainly on seeds of "weeds" and grasses in winter. Other plants material (buds, flowers, etc.) may also be taken at various seasons and, in summer, many insects and spiders are consumed.

In the southernmost coastal populations, pairs may remain together all year on permanent territories. Elsewhere, males arrive on the breeding grounds before females and defend territories by singing. In the north, the nest site is usually on the ground at the base of a shrub or grass clump, often in a shallow depression. Along the west coast, the nest is often placed a meter or so above the ground in a shrub.. The nest (built by the female) is an open cup made of grass, twigs, weeds, rootlets, and strips of bark and lined with fine grass, feathers, and animal hair. Clutch size is typically 4 or 5 eggs (sometimes 3, rarely 2 or 6). The eggs are creamy white to pale greenish and are heavily spotted with reddish brown. Incubation, which is by the female only, is for 11 to 14 days (usually 12). Both parents feed the nestlings, although the female may do more at first. Young leave the nest around 7 to 12 days after hatching, with those in the far northern part of the range tending to leave the nest earlier. The male may care for the fledglings while the female begins a second nesting attempt. In the far north, there is just one brood per year, but farther to the south there may be two, three, or even four broods per year.

Although some populations on the Pacific coast are permanent residents, elsewhere these sparrows are highly migratory. Most migration occurs at night and, on average, females winter farther south than males.

The geographic song dialects of White-crowned Sparrows have been studied extensively.

(Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Dunn and Alderfer 2011)

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Distribution

Zonotrichia leucophrys is most known for its widespread distribution, which extends mostly from the upper parts of Alaska, down to the middle of Mexico along the west coast of North America. The white-crowned sparrow, however, also breeds all along the upper parts of Canada and winters along the width of the southern United States (Chilton et al. 1995). Their wide distribution may have to do with the various subspecies of Zonotrichia leucophrys. Some of the subspecies are year-round residents, such as Z. l. nuttalli, while others migrate short distances, and still others migrate thousands of kilometers south every year.

Biogeographic Regions: nearctic (Native )

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Global Range: (>2,500,000 square km (greater than 1,000,000 square miles)) Breeding range extends from northern Alaska to Labrador, south to southern California, Nevada, central Arizona, northern New Mexico, central Manitoba, southeastern Quebec, and Newfoundland. The five recognized subspecies are fairly distinct in their distributions, with very little overlap of breeding areas (Morton 2002). Subspecies nuttalli is a nonmigratory resident of coastal California; pugetensis breeds along the Pacific coast from northern California to southern British Columbia; oriantha breeds in the central western United States and the Sierra Nevada; leucophrys breeds across northern Quebec, Labrador, and Newfoundland; and gambelii breeds throughout Alaska east to northwestern Ontario and south to southcentral British Columbia (Dunn et al. 1995).

During the nonbreeding season, the species ranges casually to central and southcentral Alaska and occurs regularly from southern British Columbia, southeastern Washington, southern Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky to western North Carolina, south to southern Baja California and southern mainland of Mexico, Gulf coast, and Cuba. Subspecies pugetensis winters along the Pacific coast from Washington to southern California; oriantha winters from the southern U.S. border to Baja California and southern Mexico; leucophrys winters in the eastern United States north to the Great Lakes and rarely in New England north to Massachusetts; and gambelii winters throughout the western United States and sparsely in the eastern United States (Dunn et al. 1995).

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occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations

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Physical Description

Morphology

This particular species of bird is very easy to recognize because of its fairly limited variation of plumage. Both males and females have two distinctive black stripes that extend along the crown of the head and behind the eyes, which boldly outlines the solid white feathers on its head. The white-crowned sparrow has a solid light gray breast and dark brown flight feathers. The coverts are each tipped with a white band. Though juveniles have very similar plumage, they tend to be more brown (instead of gray) and the head has brown, not black, stripes that surround a slightly darker "white" patch. There is no seasonal variation in Zoneotrichia leucophrys' plumage, but there has been geographical variation noted (Chilton et al. 1995).

The body mass of males tends to be slightly higher than females throughout the year. During the summer, the average weight of males is 28.27g for males, while it is about 25.47g for females (Chilton et al. 1995). Both sexes' mass, however, decreases at the beginning of the breeding season (more so in females), and increase by that same amount at the start of winter (Chilton et al. 1995).

Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry

Average mass: 25.82 g.

Average basal metabolic rate: 0.336 W.

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Size

Length: 18 cm

Weight: 29 grams

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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Systems
  • Terrestrial
  • Freshwater
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Zonotrichia leucophrys has proven to be very flexible in its choice of habitats. Varying from the edge of parking lots, to the meadows in the Rocky Mountains, or to boreal forests. The only features necessary for them are tall coniferous trees on the edge of a territory, grass, and bare ground for the birds to forage on, and coverage dense enough to hide a nest or roosting area (Chilton et al. 1995). Because of these fairly easy requirements, the white-crowned sparrow has been shown to breed in many different areas - at altitudes as low as 800 meters, or as high as within the Rocky Mountains. In the spring and fall, this bird lives in groups with other sparrow species. In the winter, the subspecies of Zonotrichia leucophrys that do migrate remain in a steady group with which they forage and roost.

Terrestrial Biomes: forest

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Comments: Open woodlands, burnt over areas in forests, brushy areas, brushy subalpine meadows, willow thickets along streams or lakes, parks, farmland.

Nests on ground under cover of shrubs and ground vegetation, or in shrub or tree up to a few feet from ground.

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Migration

Non-Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species do not make significant seasonal migrations. Juvenile dispersal is not considered a migration.

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make local extended movements (generally less than 200 km) at particular times of the year (e.g., to breeding or wintering grounds, to hibernation sites).

Locally Migrant: Yes. At least some populations of this species make annual migrations of over 200 km.

Mostly a long-distance migrant, but migrations are more localized in the western U.S., and a sedentary subspecies (nuttalli) occurs along the coast of California. Migrations occur mainly in April-May and August-October. See Dunn et al. (1995) for information on the timing of migrations of the various subspecies.

Breeding population arrived in May and June in the Sierra Nevada (California), departed in September and October (Morton and Pereyra 1994); juveniles departed on migration in late September after most had traveled some distance from their birth site (Morton 1992).

In the Northwest Territories, adults began arriving on breeding grounds during the last week in May; remained until early September (Norment 1992).

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Trophic Strategy

About ninety-two percent of what the white-crowned sparrow consumes is plant matter (Chilton et al. 1995). The small tough bill of this species makes seeds, buds, grass, and fruit ideal constituents of its diet. During spring, however, Zoneotrichia leucophrys adjusts its diet and begins eating mainly insects and seeds. By mainly ground feeding, this bird relies on dense shrubbery to provide adequate coverage from potential predators. It has been shown that feeding activity actually decreases with lack of proper coverage (Chilton et al. 1995). The white-crowned sparrow also does not store food, nor does it have a functional crop - possibly explaining why it focuses its most intense feeding times early in the morning, and again late at night.

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Comments: Feeds primarily on seeds of grasses and weeds (ragweed, pigweed, goosefoot, panicum, etc.). Also feeds on invertebrates, especially in the summer (ants, caterpillars, true bugs, beetles, spiders and snails). Forages on ground.

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Associations

Known predators

Zonotrichia leucophrys (doves, Palmer's thrasher, sage sparrow, Lark bunting, House finch, goldfinch, Gambel sparrow) is prey of:
Taxidea taxus
Falco sparverius
Red racer
Pituophis
Crotalus
Urocyon cinereoargenteus
Geococcyx velox
Lynx rufus

Based on studies in:
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • P. G. Howes, The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World: A Brief Biology of the Giant Cactus Forest of Our American Southwest (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, New York; Little, Brown, Boston; 1954), from pp. 222-239, from p. 227.
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Known prey organisms

Zonotrichia leucophrys (doves, Palmer's thrasher, sage sparrow, Lark bunting, House finch, goldfinch, Gambel sparrow) preys on:
Schismus barbatus
seeds of other plants

Based on studies in:
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)

This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
  • P. G. Howes, The Giant Cactus Forest and Its World: A Brief Biology of the Giant Cactus Forest of Our American Southwest (Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, New York; Little, Brown, Boston; 1954), from pp. 222-239, from p. 227.
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Population Biology

Number of Occurrences

Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.

Estimated Number of Occurrences: > 300

Comments: This species is represented by a very large number of occurrences (subpopulations).

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Global Abundance

>1,000,000 individuals

Comments: Global population estimate is 72,000,000 individuals (Rich et al. 2004). Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) data estimate relative abundance in the U.S. at 2.53 birds/route (n = 239) for the period 1966 to 2005 and 1.24 birds/route (n = 84) in Canada for the same time period (Sauer et al. 2005)

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General Ecology

May form flocks in winter, up to about 10-20 in southeastern U.S., 30-50 in West.

A large proportion of eggs and nestlings may be lost to predators (e.g., garter snakes, ground squirrels) in even a stable population (Petrinovich and Patterson 1983, Morton et al. 1993).

Permanent resident birds (nuttalli) on West Coast maintain year-round territories.

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical

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Cyclicity

Comments: Mostly inactive for several hours daily in continuous daylight at high latitude.

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Life Expectancy

Average lifespan

Status: wild:
13.3 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 13.3 years
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Reproduction

Though the various subspecies of Zonotrichia leucophrys differ in breeding sites and the dates of their arrival to breeding grounds, the basic system of breeding is very similar. The males are usually the first to arrive on the breeding grounds, and after the females have arrived it is only about one to three weeks before they make their first nests. Most pairs only produce one brood. This is done after an average of about 2 days from the time the cup-shaped nest was built (Morton 1997). The females incubate the eggs, and develop a brood patch during the nest construction to make this process more efficient. Incubation lasts about 12 days, throughout which the female is responsible for turning the eggs, as well as leaving during the day to forage for herself.

The male white-crowned sparrow finally begins to contribute to this effort once the eggs have hatched. He brings food, contributing more and more to feeding the young as they mature. But about halfway through their development (~day 5), his contribution steadily begins to decrease.

When first born, the young birds are naked except for a few down feathers along some tracks on their transparent pink body. Most of them fledge by the tenth day, and reach their adult weight by day 30-35.

 Though not very common, brown-headed cowbirds have been known to be a brood parasite of the white-crowned sparrow. When this occurs, the cowbirds only lay about one egg per nest, and their young tend to be just as successful as those of the sparrow.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; oviparous

Average time to hatching: 13 days.

Average eggs per season: 4.

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At the northern end of the range in the Northwest Territories, most initiated nesting in the second or third week in June, after the breeding habitat was at least 60% snow free (Norment 1992). Clutch size is 2-5, often 4-5, rarely 6. Incubation, by the female, lasts 9-15 days (range-wide average is 12 days). Young are tended by both parents, leave nest in 9-11 days, fed to some degree for additional 25-30 days. May produce several broods annually on California coast (Petrinovich and Patterson 1983).

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Molecular Biology and Genetics

Molecular Biology

Barcode data: Zonotrichia leucophrys

The following is a representative barcode sequence, the centroid of all available sequences for this species.


There are 29 barcode sequences available from BOLD and GenBank.

Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.

See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.

NNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNGCCCACGCCTTTGTAATAATCTTCTTCATAGTTATACCAATCATAATCGGAGGATTTGGAAACTGACTAGTCCCTCTAATAATCGGAGCCCCAGACATAGCATTCCCACGAATAAATAACATAAGCTTCTGACTACTCCCCCCATCTTTCCTCCTCCTCCTAGCATCTTCTACCGTCGAANCAGGTGTCGGCACAGGCTGAACAGTATACCCCCCACTAGCAGGCAATCTAGCCCATGCTGGAGCCTCAGTCGACCTTGCAATTTTCTCCCTACACCTAGCCGGTATCTCCTCAATCCTAGGGGCCATCAACTTCATTACAACAGCAATCAACATAAAACCCCCCGCCCTTTCACAATACCAAACCCCCTTATTTGTATGATCAGTCCTAATCACTGCAGTCCTACTACTCCTATCCCTTCCAGTCCTTGCTGCAGGAATCACAATACTCCTTACAGACCGCAACCTTAACACCACATTCTTCGACCCTGCCGGAGGAGGGGACCCCGTCCTATATCAACACCTGTTCTGATTCTTCGGACACCCAGAAGTCTACATCCTAATCCTC
-- end --

Download FASTA File

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Statistics of barcoding coverage: Zonotrichia leucophrys

Barcode of Life Data Systems (BOLDS) Stats
Public Records: 29
Specimens with Barcodes: 32
Species With Barcodes: 1
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
LC
Least Concern

Red List Criteria

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2012

Assessor/s
BirdLife International

Reviewer/s
Butchart, S. & Symes, A.

Contributor/s

Justification
This species has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion (Extent of Occurrence <20,000 km2 combined with a declining or fluctuating range size, habitat extent/quality, or population size and a small number of locations or severe fragmentation). The population trend appears to be stable, and hence the species does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population trend criterion (>30% decline over ten years or three generations). The population size is extremely large, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the population size criterion (<10,000 mature individuals with a continuing decline estimated to be >10% in ten years or three generations, or with a specified population structure). For these reasons the species is evaluated as Least Concern.

History
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Least Concern (LC)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
  • Lower Risk/least concern (LR/lc)
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