Birding Column: Sweet Song of the Winter Sparrows

Mathew Tekulsky
The Birdman of Bel Air
for National Geographic News
September 28, 2004

In the winter, I am fortunate enough to have the golden-crowned, white- crowned, and fox sparrows in my Bel Air, California, yard and about the region in general. By far, the most gregarious of these three species is the golden-crowned sparrow. The fox sparrow is next in friendliness, and the white-crowned sparrow is the most skittish and flees whenever it sees you.

Since they are up north for most of the spring, summer, and fall, these sparrows have become a sort of timekeeper for me. If there are golden-crowned, white-crowned, and fox sparrows in the yard, it must be winter.

The black-and-white crown of the white-crowned sparrow is one of my favorite sights in all of the birding world. It is best appreciated in person, as the brilliant white feathers, set off against the black, appear even whiter than snow. The gold feathers on the head of the golden-crowned are similarly impressive.

Since the golden-crowned and the white-crowned sparrows are closely related, they are sometimes difficult to tell apart when they are not sporting their adult or breeding plumage. One way to tell the difference between the two species is to note that the golden-crowned has a grayish bill, while the white-crowned has an orange or yellow bill.

Each of these winter sparrows makes a habit out of digging in the ground for grubs, insects, and seeds, but the best digger is the fox sparrow. This is because it has extremely large feet and claws.

All three species use the digging technique of jumping backward off of both feet at the same time, which really stirs up the soil, leaf litter, or grass. They then move forward to see what they have uncovered. Sometimes, when they jump backward, you can see the seeds popping up from out of the grass, where they were hidden before. Indeed, these winter sparrows are great diggers.

Invariably, the winter sparrows head north again to resume their breeding activities, and I am left to enjoy my resident species, such as the spotted towhee, California towhee, scrub jay, and California thrasher.

But there's always next winter.

Distinctive Song

Probably the most distinctive birdsong that I have ever heard belongs to the white-throated sparrow. The bird sings a lower note (equivalent to the high B flat on the piano), followed by three, four, or usually five higher notes (equivalent to the C sharp above the high B flat, which is off of the piano keyboard).

I remember hearing this beautiful call in the fir and spruce trees at the timberline in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York when I was on backpacking trips in my youth. And I whistled this same song to call my cocker spaniels Mocha and Ruffles for as long as they were alive. Believe me, those dogs answered to that call!

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