A Touch of Gold – the Golden-crowned Sparrow

One of the more common “bramble” sparrows that turns up on winter Christmas Bird Counts is the golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) – it’s often much easier to find than the white-crowned sparrow (Z. leucophrys), although ironically, the latter actually showed up at our feeder today. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get any pictures of the white-crowned sparrow for comparison purposes but will see what I can do this week!

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
Often it is difficult to get a clear look at a sparrow due to its tendency to use thickets and brambles for cover from predators. As a result, you need to look for a number of different features to correctly identify the sparrow.

Winter golden-crowned sparrows in non-breeding plumage can be confused with first winter white-crowned sparrows but with a little attention to detail the two species can be separated fairly readily. Both have similar wing markings and breast colouration so attention needs to be paid to the field marks on the head.

The most visible difference is the colour of the crown of the two sparrows – like the name suggests, the golden-crowned has a yellow forecrown while the white-crowned has a white crown. In first winter white-crowned sparrows, the head striping isn’t clearly white and in poor light can have you second guessing yourself. The head of the white-crowned usually has a more clearly striped feel to it.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
A little patience reveals a better look at field marks on the head of the Golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla). Note that there is a less noticeable “crown” in winter.

Bill colouration is also important – golden-crowned sparrows have a two-toned or gray bill depending on whether they are a first winter bird or a non-breeding adult. In contrast, the white-crowned sparrow on the west coast has a yellowish bill.

Becoming familiar with the field marks of this sparrow and others provides you with the chance to identify four relatively easy west coast winter sparrows – golden-crowned sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, song sparrow and fox sparrow on your next nature walk. Give those shrubs and thickets a second look for a touch of gold!

Read more about golden-crowned sparrows at 10,000 BirdsGolden-crowned Sparrows. GrrlScientist has a great mystery bird quiz featuring the golden-crowned sparrow at Mystery Bird: Golden-crowned Sparrow which makes for an interesting insight into the thought process of identifying an unfamiliar bird. Check out Mike’s post at Slugyard about the arrival of golden-crowned sparrows in his backyard at Golden-crowned Sparrows Wintering.