A White-crowned Sparrow in my backyard in northeast Iowa.
Zonotrichia leucophrys ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE
White-crowned Sparrows appear each winter over much of North America to grace our gardens and favorite trails (they live in parts of the West year-round). The smart black-and-white head, pale beak, and crisp gray breast combine for a dashing look – and make it one of the surest sparrow identifications in North America. Watch for flocks of these sparrows scurrying through brushy borders and overgrown fields, or coax them into the open with backyard feeders. As spring approaches, listen out for this bird’s thin, sweet whistle.
The White-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow with a small bill and a long tail. The head can look distinctly peaked or smooth and flat, depending on the bird’s attitude.
First impressions of White-crowned Sparrows tend to be of a plain, pale-gray bird; next your eye is drawn to the very bold black-and-white stripes on the head and the pale pink or yellow bill. Learn this bird’s size and shape so you’re ready to identify young birds that have brown, not black, markings on the head.
You’ll see White-crowned Sparrows low at the edges of brushy habitat, hopping on the ground or on branches usually below waist level. They’re also found in open ground (particularly on their breeding grounds) but typically with the safety of shrubs or trees nearby.
Look for White-crowned Sparrows in places where safe tangles of brush mix with open or grassy ground for foraging. For much of the United States, White-crowned Sparrows are most likely in winter (although two races live year round in the West, along the coast and in the mountains).