Original description: Emberiza leucophrys Forster 1772
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys; Intermediate Sparrow, Zonotrichia intermedia; Gambel’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia gambeli
AOU 2 (1895): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys; Intermediate Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys intermedia; Gambel’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii
AOU 3 (1910): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys; Gambel’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambeli; Nuttall’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttallii
AOU 4 (1931): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys; Gambel’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambeli; Puget Sound Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys pugetensis; Nuttall’s Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli
AOU 5 (1957): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii, Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha, Zonotrichia leucophrys pugetensis, Zonotrichia leucophrys nuttalli
AOU 6 (1983): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
AOU 7 (1998): White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
Behavior: Much less retiring than the Golden-crowned or White-throated Sparrow, small groups of migrant and wintering White-crowned Sparrows are often seen feeding in the open, aware but not all that wary, on lawns and roadsides; in the Pacific Northwest, pugetensis White-crowneds favor driftwood and sand on coastal beaches. If disturbed, White-crowned Sparrows may fly only a short distance before landing in the open atop a bush, small tree, or fence, surveying for additional danger.
Long-range flight is rarely observed in this species. White-crowned Sparrows flee to cover or move from one feeding to another with deep, fast wing beats; the long tail is flipped down on takeoff and landing.
Voice: Males sing from conspicuous perches in bushes and trees, up to heights of 25 feet or more. The tail is usually held below the horizontal, the head thrown back and the bill opened wide
The vocalizations of various populations of White-crowned Sparrows may be better known to ornithology than those of any other North American species. Indeed, much of what is known about song acquisition, variation, and function in passerines has been learned by studying this sparrow in the field and in the laboratory.
One inventory of this species’ call repertoire, conducted in the breeding range of the Mountain White-crowned Sparrow, found nine different call behaviors used by some or all sex and age classes. The most familiar call, heard from breeder and migrants, males and females, adults and juveniles, feeding birds and perched birds, is the well-known “pink,” a loud, sweet note closely recalling a Northern Cardinal’s chip but fuller, less metallic, and with a very soft attack and very sharp, rapid decay. Like the “chink” of White-throated Sparrows or the “wink” of Harris Sparrows, this call is especially conspicuous on the wintering grounds in the early morning, when few other birds are vocal. Given in a wide variety of situations, this call may indicate “high arousal, or a state of indecision regarding subsequent behavioral acts.” This call is said to be flatter in the populations breeding on the Pacific Coast.
Birds under stress and about to flee, in flight or on foot, may give a harsh whining call, sometimes in a rapid series. Each note is longer than the “pink” call, lower-pitched, and more clearly slurred, with a relatively long, ascending attack and long, descending decay. The common flight note, also given by nervous perched birds, is a very slightly buzzy “dsip.” Probably identical to the call labeled “SIP” by Hill and Lein, this note is surprisingly short, high, and thin for such a physically robust sparrow, vaguely recalling the slight and slender flight calls of a Spizella sparrow.
Other calls identified by Hill and Lein include a short trill, given by both sexes; a “flag” note indicating an intention to either attack or escape; a chatter and a rasping call, both given only by males; a broadly modulated “teez” given by nestlings and fledglings; and a mysterious “W-call,” given only rarely and without an identifiable function. These calls are generally much more frequent on the breeding grounds than in migration or winter—obviously so in the case of the “teez” note of nestlings and juveniles.
Both males and, less frequently, females sing. Though it is usually instantly recognizable, the song of the White-crowned Sparrow varies individually and geographically, even within subspecies, creating a wide range of idiolects and dialects. What all songs share is the combination of rather clear, plaintive whistled notes with loose, broadly modulated buzzes in a relaxed series; many songs also include one or two complex slurred notes and end with a low-volume trill or soft buzz. At a distance, only the buzzes may be audible, reminding some observers of the song of a Black-throated Blue Warbler or Clay-colored Sparrow.
Vocal differences among subspecies and local populations are most conspicuous in the sequence of song elements. The first note in the song is apparently always whistled, but the arrangement of the buzzes, note complexes, and trills that follow varies regionally. In the Sierra Nevada of California, for example, one study identified five local dialects within the breeding populations of oriantha; each male sang the same song type from year to year. As in all passerellids, song in White-crowned Sparrows is learned. The degree of variation and the number of dialects are thus lowest in areas with high population densities and large stretches of continuous habitat, where young males are likely to repeatedly hear songs of many adults; conversely, variation is most pronounced among small, isolated breeding units.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys: Tail feathers dark brown with narrow paler brownish edges. Upper tail coverts and rump plain medium brown. Back and scapulars brownish gray with broad reddish brown streaks. Primaries dusky brown with narrow paler brown edges, the outer three or four with an additional very narrow whitish edge on outer web. Secondaries dusky brown with paler brown edges, wider on inner secondaries. Tertials dusky with thin white tips and edges on inner web; outer web with broad chestnut edge becoming white towards tip. Greater coverts dusky on the outer web, dark brown on the inner, with large white tips most conspicuous on outer web; innermost greater coverts with broad chestnut edges near the base. Median coverts dark brown, with dusky shaft streaks and, most conspicuously on outer web, white tips; together with white tips of greater coverts, form two bright white, somewhat jagged or dotted wing bars. Nape plain medium dove-gray, sometimes with faint brownish streaking.
Under tail coverts pale buffy or whitish with very fine, usually invisible darker shaft streaks. Vent and center of belly pale gray to whitish, flanks diffusely pale buffy brown. Breast and throat pale gray to whitish, whitest on throat; sometimes a fine, short pale lateral throat stripe separating throat from faintly whiter short jaw stripe.
Crown with two wide deep black lateral stripes and more or less equally wide white or whitish central stripe. Deep black forehead extends down into lores and reaches back to front of eye. Broad white or whitish stripe above eye, reaching from nape to front of eye; bordered below by narrower black eye line beginning at back of eye and flaring at nape. Side of neck and ear coverts medium dove gray, blending into nape, jaw stripe, and throat. Thin bright white crescent below eye.
Tarsus light pinkish brown, toes darker. Thick-based, rather short bill yellowish pink below, dark brownish pink above, darkest on culmen.
Juvenile Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys: Tail feathers dark brown with narrow paler brownish edges. Upper tail coverts and rump buffy brown with faint blackish streaks. Back and scapulars brown with blackish streaks. Primaries dusky brown with narrow paler brown edges. Secondaries dusky brown with paler brown edges, wider on inner secondaries. Tertials dusky with thin white tips and edges on inner web; outer web with broad chestnut edge becoming white towards tip. Greater coverts dusky on the outer web, dark brown on the inner, with white tips most conspicuous on outer web; innermost greater coverts with broad chestnut edges near the base. Median coverts dark brown, with dusky shaft streaks and, most conspicuously on outer web, white tips; together with white tips of greater coverts, form two bright white, somewhat jagged or dotted wing bars. Nape medium brownish gray with narrow blackish streaking.
Under tail coverts, vent, belly, breast, and throat dull buffy. Flanks, breast, and throat with dusky streaks.
Crown with wide light rusty lateral stripes with dusky streaking. Central crown stripe pale buffy or brownish white with dusky streaking. Dull rusty brown of forehead extends down into lores and reaches back to front of eye. Broad buffy stripe above eye, reaching from nape to front of eye; bordered below by narrower brownish eye line. Side of neck and ear coverts medium brown, blending into nape, jaw stripe, and throat. Thin buffy crescent below eye.
Tarsus light brownish pink, toes gray. Thick-based, rather short bill yellowish pink below, flesh-colored above, with brownish culmen.
Pre-formative molt, leading from juvenile to formative plumage, begins when the bird is approximately twenty days old; completed on breeding grounds, except in subspecies nuttalli, which completes molt on wintering grounds.
Length 153-171 mm (6.0-6.7 inches)
Wing 73-83 mm (2.9-3.3 inches)
Tail 68-82 mm (2.7-3.2 inches)
Mass 28 g