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White-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys

Length: 6.5 to 7.5 inches Wingspan: 9 to 10 inches Seasonality: Migrant
ID Keys: White crown with black stripes, black eyestripe, 2 white wing bars

White-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrows are a fairly common migrant through the state (and occasional winter resident in the far southern part of the state).  They are well known for the amazing range of dialects from one location to another, and are one of the most studied of bird species in North America.  Young males learn their songs in their first few months of life, "picking up" a song style in the local environment where they're raised.   As individual birds often return to the same general area for breeding, local populations have thus developed their own dialects.  A fully-mature White-crowned Sparrow is shown in the photo to the right.  Immature (first-year) birds typically have less bold markings on the head (see photos at the bottom of the page).


On their migration through the state White-crowned Sparrows can be found in a very wide variety of habitats, including forest edges, brush, thickets, parks, residential areas, and agricultural areas.  On their summer breeding grounds they are found in open and semi-open habitats, including grassy meadows, open tundra, woodland edges and clearings, and open shrublands.


The diet for most of the season primarily consists of seeds, but during the summer breeding season many insects and small invertebrates are consumed. They may also sometimes feed on waste grain, fruits, and berries. They will frequently visit feeder areas, although they typically scratch for food on the ground below the feeder rather than visiting the feeder itself.


White-crowned Sparrows primarily forage on the ground, or occasionally low in vegetation, where they can be seen hopping along and scratching on the ground in search of fallen seeds or other food items. They will also occasionally fly out from a perch to catch flying insects.  They are often gregarious outside of the mating season, foraging in loose flocks, often mixed with other sparrow species.


Non-breeder in South Dakota. On their breeding grounds White-crowned Sparrows nest on the ground or very close to it, with the being placed in a low shrub (typically within 5 feet of the ground), within a thick tussock of grass just off the ground, or on the ground itself. The nest is built by the female and is a cup built of grasses, moss, bits of bark, twigs, and other vegetative material, lined with hair and grasses. The female lays between 2 and 6 eggs that are a light bluish to light greenish in color, speckled with a rusty brown. The female alone incubates the eggs, with incubation lasting about 12 or 13 days. The young fledge from the nest 10 to 12 days after hatching.

Song / Call:

Skilled vocalists, White-crowned Sparrows have a wide variety of songs, with songs varying widely between different locations. Mnemonics to help remember the White-crowned Sparrow song include "more more more cheeeeeeezies", with a buzzy or trilled ending. In reality...that doesn't sound like a White-crowned Sparrow to me!  The song of a White-crowned Sparrow typically starts with some whistled notes, before transitioning to some buzzy notes, or sometimes, a trilled ending to the song. They also have a variety of calls, including a crisp repeated peek, or a breathy wheet that's often given respectively as an alarm call.


Most summer in northern Canada, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains.  Most winter in the southern half of the U.S., the west coast, and Mexico.  However, there is a non-migratory population along the coastline of California.  In South Dakota they are mostly present as migrants, in both the spring and the fall. However, a few may sometimes try to over-winter in the southern part of the state (primarily first-year birds from my experience).

Interactive eBird map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of White-crowned Sparrow sightings

Similar Species:

White-throated Sparrows could potentially be confused with the following species:

White-throated Sparrow 5 - Zonotrichia albicollis White-throated Sparrow 1 - Zonotrichia albicollis Golden-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia atricapilla Golden-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia atricapilla
White-throated Sparrow (adult) White-throated Sparrow (immature) Golden-crowned Sparrow Golden-crowned Sparrow

Bird Feeders:

White-crowned Sparrows will attend feeders for most seeds, particularly sunflower seeds. They are most likely to be found scratching on the ground underneath a feeder than up on the feeder itself, although they will partake of a broad platform feeder.

Conservation Status:

There are several different populations of  this species, most of which seem to be stable.  However, there are indications that some populations in the western United States are declining. Overall though, systematic surveys such as the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey show stable populations of the population as a whole. They are still common in many parts of their range and are found over a very broad geographic area. The IUCN thus considers the White-crowned Sparrow to be a species of "least concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

October 12th, 2012 -- Minnehaha County, South Dakota -- Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution White-crowned Sparrow photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
White-crowned Sparrow - North American Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common migrant throughout the state.  Casual winter visitor, primarily in the southern part of the state.

Additional White-crowned Sparrow Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
 White-crowned Sparrow 1 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 2 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 3 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 4 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 5 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 6 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 7 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 8 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 9 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 10 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 11 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 12 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 13 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 14 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 15 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 16 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 17 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 18 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 19 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 20 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 21 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 22 - Zonotrichia leucophrysWhite-crowned Sparrow 23 - Zonotrichia leucophrys