Teachers’ Lounge

“Crowned” Sparrows

by ocarmi on Oct. 31st, 2009 2 Comments

Species: Golden-crowned Sparrow
Scientific name: Zonotrichia atricapilla
Sounds: song
Species: White-crowned Sparrow
Scientific name: Zonotrichia leucophrys
Sounds: song (two sound files:1, 2)

About this column>>

This story behind this post begins with Facebook. Sometimes, ironically, technology can help us stay in touch with the natural world. I’ve been so busy recently, that I’ve failed to notice some of my favorite sounds of fall. Fortunately, I connected with an old birdwatching friend on Facebook who posted the following comment: “White-crowned Sparrows are back….yeah! Now where are the Golden-crowned???” A few days later she announced that the Golden-crowned Sparrows had returned as well.
Adult Golden-crowned Sparrow
Adult Golden-crowned Sparrow.
Photo credit: Linda Tanner, Los Osos, CA

That day, as I walked to work across Golden Gate Park, I noticed a whole cacophony of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrow song, right across the street from the Academy: how had I missed them?!

I thought I’d share their sounds with you. Here is a portion of a recording I made of Golden-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla) at the spot across from the Academy. Golden-crowned Sparrow song is characterized by a doleful, descending series of three whistles. This recording consists of at least two counter-singing males: notice that the second iteration of the song is weaker and more distant-sounding, and that it is higher-pitched than the first iteration. Note also that the last two song iterations on this recording consist of only one and two whistles each. Sometimes Golden-crowned Sparrow song is heard in such shortened versions.

[As a side note, the recording also includes the calls of other birds--most prominently a chickadee overlapping with the second Golden-crowned Sparrow song iteration.]

Golden-crowned Sparrows breed along western-most Canada and in much of Alaska. They spend the winter mostly along the Pacific coast from southwestern-most Canada to northern Baja California. While in California, their song can be heard most often when they first arrive in the fall, and when they gear up for their migration north (April and early May). However, they sing throughout the winter to some extent, so keep yourself primed to hear their moving song! In the winter, they can be found in a variety of brushy habitats, and are very common in local parks and even urban gardens.

Adult White-crowned Sparrow
Adult White-crowned Sparrow.
Photo credit: Michael “Mike” L. Baird flicker.bairdphotos.com
White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) can be found in the same sorts of places as Golden-crowned Sparrows during the winter, and the timing of their migration and the frequency with which they sing during the winter are roughly similar to those of Golden-crowns as well. There is an additional complexity to the story of wintering White-crowns, however. In comparison to Golden-crowned Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows have a much broader geographic range–they breed throughout much of the western United States and Canada, and all the way east across northern Canada.

And in the Bay Area, three different subspecies can be found in the winter. (They can be told apart by subtle physical differences as well as differences in song.) White-crowned Sparrows of the subspecies gambeli, which arrive here from Alaska, are not very common. Birds of subspecies pugetensis, from the Pacific Northwest, are abundant. White-crowned Sparrows in the subspecies nuttalli, which breed locally in northern California, stay put, and in fact, can be heard year-round in appropriate habitat: foggy, brushy areas, such as seaside vegetation and coastal hills.

While volunteering a few years ago for Jay McEntee, a graduate student in U.C. Berkeley studying, among else, vocal evolution in birds, I learned that some of the historic populations of the locally breeding subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows have disappeared. The most widespread subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow around here during the winter is the Northwestern pugetensis, and it is the one most likely to be heard.

A typical song of a White-crowned Sparrow wintering in the Bay Area begins with a whistle on a single note followed by a second whistle or buzz on a higher note. What follows is variable: one or more additional whistles/buzzes? A trill (quick repetitions of the same note)? Repeated notes followed by a buzz or whistle? See if you can pick out the two White-crowned Sparrow songs in this recording made in the San Francisco Arboretum. Here is another recording of White-crowned Sparrows singing over the noise of a cheerful baseball game.

One of my greatest joys during the fall is in following the changes that occur in bird vocalizations. Different species move through the Bay Area or arrive here at different times, so there is almost continually something new to hear. As you proceed about your daily routine–going to school or returning home, walking about your neighborhood, taking your dog to the park, making a trip to the grocery store–if you remember, consider taking a few moments just to listen to the different sounds around you. Do you hear anything you haven’t heard in a while? Anything you haven’t heard before? Over the years that I’ve been birdwatching, I’ve come to associate particular bird sounds with different parts of the fall: beginning of the school-year, the onset of cold, the approach of Christmas. And this adds a great deal of color to my life.

So, it’s worth it to pay attention to what’s going on out in nature at this time of year. But if you don’t find enough time to do that, connect with someone on Facebook who does!

Immature Golden-crowned Sparrow
Immature Golden-crowned Sparrow.
Photo credit: “black_throated_green_warbler” from Flickr
Immature White-crowned Sparrow
Immature White-crowned Sparrow.
Photo credit: Jamie Chavez, Santa Barbara Co., CA

Previous posts:
June 27, 2009: Female vocalizations in birds
May 29, 2009: Which hummingbird did we spot?
May 1, 2009: Chicks of the season
April 22, 2009: California Towhee
April 24, 2009: Update on California Towhees
March 24, 2009: Mid-March Medley
February 26, 2009: Allen’s Hummingbird
January 28, 2009: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

2 Comments So Far

  1. work from home on May. 28th, 2013 at 1:03 PM

    Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Thanks for sharing!

  2. ocarmi on May. 28th, 2013 at 1:15 PM

    Thank you! I’m glad my post touched you.

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