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)
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 )
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).
occurs (regularly, as a native taxon) in multiple nations
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.
Length: 18 cm
Weight: 29 grams
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
Habitat and Ecology
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.
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).
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.
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.
Based on studies in:
USA: Arizona, Sonora Desert (Desert or dune)
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Known prey organisms
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.
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).
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)
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.
Life History and Behavior
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
Comments: Mostly inactive for several hours daily in continuous daylight at high latitude.
Status: wild: 13.3 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
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.
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).
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Zonotrichia leucophrys
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.
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Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Zonotrichia leucophrys
Public Records: 29
Specimens with Barcodes: 32
Species With Barcodes: 1
So far, Zonotrichia leucophrys has not required any management. While practices as logging seem to disturb many species of birds, this practice actually has provided the white-crowned sparrow with new habitats (bare ground and grasslands for easy foraging) (Chilton et al. 1995). Cattle grazing has proven to be the only deterrent of this species' habitat requirements (Knopf et al. 1988).
US Migratory Bird Act: protected
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: least concern
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N5B - Secure
Rounded National Status Rank: N5B,N5N : N5B: Secure - Breeding, N5N: Secure - Nonbreeding
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G5 - Secure
Reasons: Large range in North America; abundant; secure.
Comments: Few threats exist overall. In some areas there is concern related to brood parasitism by the brown-headed cowbird (Trail and Baptista 1993), habitat alteration due to cattle grazing (Favis 2000), and natural mortality caused by predation (Morton et al. 1993, Chilton et al. 1995) and inclement weather (Morton 2002).
Cowbird parasitism is not a problem in most areas, but in the San Francisco Bay area, subspecies nuttalli experienced a large increase in the rate of brood parasitism that could threaten long-term population persistence (Trail and Baptista 1993).
Although this species utilizes disturbed areas during the breeding season, disturbance as a result of cattle grazing has been shown to have a negative effect on sparrow populations. Reduced nest success in California coastal scrub communities (compared to undisturbed habitat) was attributed to habitat alteration as a result of grazing (Favis 2000).
Predation contributes substantially to egg and nestling mortality in some populations (Chilton et al. 1995). Predation by Belding's ground squirrels (Spermophilus beldingi) was the largest cause of nest failure during a 19-year study in the Sierra Nevada, California (Morton et al. 1993).
Activities of human investigators may also increase the likelihood of nest predation and desertion (Morton et al. 1993; Chilton et al. 1995). Nest loss and desertion also have been attributed to weather effects such as late spring snowfall (Morton 2002).
Biological Research Needs: Factors contributing to observed population declines need to be identified. Research is needed on habitat use and the effects of habitat alteration as a result of grazing on species distribution. The degree of threat posed by brood parasitism needs to be determined. A better understanding of the natural history and distribution of the species during the nonbreeding season is needed.
Global Protection: Very many (>40) occurrences appropriately protected and managed
Comments: Many occurrences are in national parks and other well-rotected areas.
Adults are 18 cm (7 in) long and have black and white stripes on their head, a gray face, brown streaked upper parts and a long tail. The wings are brown with bars and the underparts are gray. Their bill is pink or yellow. They are similar in appearance to the white-throated sparrow but do not have the white throat markings.
There are five currently recognized subspecies of white-crowned sparrow (pugetensis, gambelii, nuttalli, oriantha, and leucophrys), varying in breeding distribution migratory route. Birds of the subspecies nutalli are permanent residents in California, while birds of the subspecies gambelli may migrate as far as the Arctic Circle during the summer breeding season. Northern birds migrate to the southern United States.
Their breeding habitat is brushy areas across northern Canada and the western United States.
These birds forage on the ground or in low vegetation, but sometimes make short flights to catch flying insects. They mainly eat seeds, other plant parts and insects. In winter, they often forage in flocks.
White-crowned sparrows nest either low in bushes or on the ground under shrubs and lay three to five brown-marked gray or greenish-blue eggs.
The white-crowned sparrow is known for its natural alertness mechanism, which allows it to stay awake for up to two weeks during migration. This effect has been studied for possible human applications, such as shift-work drowsiness or truck driving.
Female white-crowned sparrow hunting for food on the ground. Owl Canyon on the western shore of Bodega Harbor, California
- BirdLife International (2012). "Zonotrichia leucophrys". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 26 November 2013.
- Broad, R. A.; Hawley, R. G. (1980). "White-crowned Sparrows: new to Britain and Ireland". British Birds 73 (10): 466–470.
- "Rare bird found in coastal garden". BBC News. 9 January 2008. Retrieved 12 August 2011.
- Hussey, Harry (2003). "The White-crowned Sparrow in County Cork". Birding World 16 (5): 203–5.
- "American mob-sparrow declares war on Norway". Archived from the original on 7 October 2009.
- Unwin, Brian. "White-crowned Sparrow boosts local tourism". The Telegraph. The Telegraph. Retrieved 28 October 2014.
- "It's Wake-Up Time". Wired Website. 1 November 2003. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
- "Migratory Sleeplessness in the White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)". PLoS Biology 2 (7): E212. 13 July 2004. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020212. PMC 449897. PMID 15252455.
- "Alaska sparrow migration mystery". Far North Science Website. 6 November 2007. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
- "Circadian and Masking Control of Migratory Restlessness in Gambel's White-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii)". Journal of Biological Rhythms. 1 February 2008. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
Names and Taxonomy
Comments: Five subspecies are recognized: Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, Z. l. gambelii, Z. l. oriantha, Z. l. pugetensis and Z. l. nuttalli. Substantial gene flow occurs between subspecies pugetensis and nuttalli (Corbin and Wilkie 1988).
Mitochondrial DNA data indicate that relative to most congeneric avian comparisons, the five species of Zonotrichia are closely related; leucophrys is most closely related to the Golden-crowned Sparrow, Z. atricapilla (Zink et al. 1991).