White-crowned Sparrow

Hey guys, welcome back! Today, we head back into the world of sparrows. “Sparrows are hard!” “They all look the same, I don’t know how people tell them apart.” If you’re a birder, chances are you’ve heard one or both of these sentences nearly every time you mention the word “sparrow.” But, as with most birds, if you know what to look for, it’s not so bad. Take for instance the white-crowned sparrow. To the untrained eye, the white-crowned looks almost the same as the white-throated. They do, after all, both have black and white stripes on their head. But that is mostly where their visual similarities end. The white-crowned is slightly larger, mostly owing to the fact that it has a longer tail in relation to its body. Their bill is short and cone-shaped and is usually a pinkish or yellowish color. The white crown stripe is wider and more distinct than on the white-throated. They also lack the yellow above their eye and the distinct white throat patch. Additionally, if you look at the back where most sparrows are a mottled brown and black, the white-crowned is mostly mottled brown and white. Some individuals have more black than others, but they all have white speckling which the white-throated does not.

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Adult white-crowned sparrow, Concord, OH

Silhouette is a good way to ID these guys as well. The white-crowned sparrow has a very distinct outline. They often appear to have a pointed or peaked head. This is especially helpful with juvenile birds which lack the black and white head stripes and instead sport brown and gray. I remember always scanning white-throated sparrows in case one of their “look-alikes” was hiding amongst them. Then I saw my first white crowned in Central Park’s Ravine area while they were dredging and widening it a few years back and could tell right away. They just look different. I’ve never confused them since.

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Juvenile white-crowned sparrow prior to getting its white crown, Central Park, NY

White-crowned sparrows are mostly wintering birds here in the US, except for some populations in the mountains out west. Typically showing up in October, and heading back north in spring. One of the things we as humans don’t ever really think that much about is the language of wild animals. Most of us just kind of go through life with the idea that animals have their own language and that’s that. But some species can develop their own dialects, just like we do. White-crowned sparrows are just one of many birds that have interspecies dialects based on regions. Most white-crowned sparrows learn their songs from their neighbors, i.e. the birds in their area. Birds from other ranges over time develop their own dialects, and birds that live on the borders are essentially bilingual, speaking both dialects! I think that’s pretty damn cool. Next up, we have the first of two vireos in a row. See you then!

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