Randy's Natural World

A white-crowned sparrow perches on a cedar tree. Take note of the long tail.

This week, I’m back to writing about sparrows.

And I’ll write about sparrows next week, too. The reason being is that this week’s sparrow, the white-crowned, is very similar to next week’s — the white-throated.

Seeing a white-crowned sparrow is always a joy when they visit a bird feeder. In fact, I would say seeing any sparrow other than a house sparrow at a feeder is a joy.

White-crowned sparrows are fairly colorful winter visitors to Oklahoma.

They can be attracted to backyard feeders with seeds such as millet, black oil sunflower, hulled sunflower and cracked corn. They will even eat milo. White-crowned sparrows will eat seed on the ground and at platform feeders.

I’ve known a lot about white-crowned sparrows for quite some time, but I recently learned something new, courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The Lab reports that scientists interested in movement and energetics discovered that white-crowned sparrows can run on a treadmill at a pace of about one-third of a mile an hour without becoming exhausted.

When I read this, I wondered if they were referring to a regular treadmill or one created specifically for small animals. I also pictured birds wearing oxygen masks with all sorts of wires hooked up to them!

Description

As I mentioned previously, the white-crowned sparrow is quite colorful for a sparrow.

The back half of the bird is pretty typical for a sparrow, with various shades of brown. It has brown sides and a gray breast and neck, including the nape. The gray coloration extends up the face to the eyes. From the eyes up — the bird’s crown — it has a mixture of white and black stripes.

As I mentioned before, the white-crowned is similar in appearance to the white-throated. However, one thing the white-crowned sparrow has that the white-throated sparrow does not is a bright orange beak. That is the most important thing to remember when distinguishing between these two equally beautiful birds; the white-crowned sparrow has a magnificent orange beak.

The white-throated sparrow has a gray beak. It also has a couple of yellow patches on its head and a clearly defined white throat, two things the white-crowned does not have.

Immature white-crowned sparrows have crowns of brown and tan. However, they usually have the orange beak, although sometimes it is mixed with dark coloring.

Range

The white-crowned sparrow breeds in Alaska and much of northern Canada. It also breeds in western Canada and portions of Montana and Idaho. It is a permanent resident in several Rocky Mountain states. It winters along the Pacific Coast, the southern two-thirds of the United States and much of Mexico. It can be found all over Oklahoma during the winter.

Food

During the colder months of the year, white-crowned sparrows eat mostly seeds. In the warmer months, along with seeds of grasses and weeds, they eat insects and vegetable matter such as leaves, berries, flowers, small fruits, etc. Young are fed mostly insects.

Habitat

In winter, white-crowned sparrows inhabit overgrown fields, hedgerows, residential yards, agricultural fields and roadsides.

Odds and ends

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports that the oldest recorded white-crowned sparrow was more than 13 years old.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.