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White-Crowned Sparrow

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White-Crowned Sparrow

An Above-Average, Average Bird

It wasn’t that long ago when the latest trend for summer vacation was the “stay-cation.” That is, foregoing that third or fourth trip to Disneyland and staying home instead. The original impetus was the economic downturn of 2008 combined with the high price of gasoline. Suddenly it made sense to save a lot of money and time by simply not going anywhere, but hanging around the house for two weeks. Many people became pleasantly surprised at how nicely that worked out—not the kids, perhaps, but then they didn’t have to fork out the money or spend days-on-end windshield time making memories for everybody else. They just sat in the backseat, complaining “Are we there yet?”

Yes, we are there. For just like with the family vacation, sometimes staying home is the best choice for birding. It is not always necessary to be someplace else in order to add to your life list. You don’t always have to be beating back the mosquitoes, tromping through the muck and mud, or driving endless miles to find that perfect spot, to enjoy birding. Sometimes the birds come to you.

And that is true for this month’s bird: the White-crowned Sparrow. Not only is it one of the most common backyard visitors in North America, it is also one of the prettiest—assuming you’re quick with those binoculars. 

In much of the United States, the White-crowned Sparrow is a winter visitor. In our area, we’re fortunate to have these perky little fellows as summer breeders. And of the two choices, I prefer the latter. Why? ‘Cause it’s summer! By the time these seasonal migrants get to our region, people are done with the cold of winter and the soggy of spring, and thinking warmer thoughts. You can count me among ‘em!

 At first glance the White-crowned Sparrow might not warrant a second glance. After all, it is just another sparrow—a plain, predominantly gray little bird that might be mistaken for any other plain, predominantly gray little bird. Ah, but it is more. With the aid of a pair of binoculars, one will spot some of the coolest racing stripes in all of bird-dom. At least around here. The head of the White-crowned Sparrow is spectacularly striped in black and white: a broad bright white stripe down the center of the crown, paralleled on each side with equally bold black stripes. In turn, these two black stripes have below them additional white stripes, and then, finally, another black stripe. All told there are seven white and black stripes crammed onto this little fella’s head. Quite an accomplishment and quite beautiful. And with the center white stripe being both front and center, we have the bird’s name. Otherwise, the birds are rather nondescript, with gray unstreaked bodies, and a patterned brown-and-white on the back and the wings. If you look carefully, you see two wing bars. 

Males and females look pretty much the same. They are generally monogamous birds, and some pairs may even mate for life.

To attract the White-crowned Sparrow to your backyard, you might have to keep on hand a pile of discarded tree branches combined with a couple years’ worth of old Christmas trees. The bird prefers brushy habitat, preferable below waist level. Here they will nest. They also do most of their foraging on the ground, eating mainly seeds and plant material and grabbing any insect life when the opportunity presents itself. 

As I’ve mentioned many times in previous articles and which I will continue to repeat: just because a bird species is common and in abundance does not mean that it is common in every other respect. The White-crowned Sparrow is a case in point. This bird sports some very unusual qualities. For example, the White-crowned Sparrow is capable of staying awake for up to two weeks at a time. It uses this ability during migration. In addition, one White-crowned was once documented to have flown 300 miles in a single night. That’s booking it! And Alaskan White-crowned Sparrows migrate 2,600 miles to winter in southern California. This is not atypical for migrating species, but still quite an accomplishment. 

I tell you what: our backyards can be troves of feathered treasures. You just need to be ready to expect the unexpected. So get ready! I recommend quality binoculars, a “Sibley’s Guide to Birds,” a large glass of lemonade with extra ice, a wide-brimmed hat, a comfortable lawn chair, and hopefully a broad sun shade. Soft jazz in the background and a footstool are optional, though recommended. Then you’re ready for birding from your back deck. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Happy birding! 

Note: you can find online images of birds that I’ve photographed at birdsidaho.blogspot.com

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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birding, A Bird in Hand, white-crowned sparrow

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