Grays Harbor Birds - Golden-crowned Sparrow

Nothing says fall to winter birding is on its way like the arrival of Golden-crowned Sparrows to the ground beneath my feeders.

I try to pay attention to the daily population of birds in my yard, first to keep track of who is showing up and second, to keep in touch with the passing seasons; the older I get, the quicker time passes. The Golden-crowned Sparrow is immediately noticeable to me because it’s larger than the juncos and the other sparrows but just a bit smaller than the Spotted Towhee … all of them ground feeders in my yard.

As most of you know, it is important to furnish the right combination of safe haven, food, water, and shelter to attract birds to your yard. I like to think of it as the “lasagna effect” — layers of plants from the ground to the bushes to the trees allow the birds to move safely and quickly from foraging for food, to bathing, to shelter from the rain. Most birds prefer the edges of these environments, so I have what laughingly passes for a beach lawn, with the edges giving way to scratched up dirt and duff (needles,sticks, rotting leaves, etc.), then the salal and blackberry, and finally the evergreens, alder, myrtle, willows, and various native berries.

This is a rich habitat for our native birds, and very attractive to most. On these winter mornings, the greatest number of birds in my yard are Golden-crowned Sparrows, probably 15 to 20 birds. Here are some of the facts about these wintering natives.

Size: 6 to 7 inches in length, with a wingspan of 9.5 inches, and weighing approximately 1 ounce

General Description: A large sparrow with a long tail, small head, and a short, stout, seed-eating bill. The winter plumage is a rich, gold-brown striping with some black on the back, a paler gray-brown belly and breast, and a dull yellow crown. The breeding plumage is much brighter, but we don’t see that for long, as they head north to breed.

Habitat: In winter, this sparrow spends its time in brushy thickets, riparian zones (near water), gardens, and parks. It prefers denser forested areas on the edges of open areas, and is found from southern British Columbia south to Baja, and mostly west of the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada’s. During breeding season, it moves north to the tundra in April or May.

Behavior: During winter and migration Golden-crowned Sparrows can be found feeding in mixed flocks of Fox, Song, and White-crowned Sparrows, Spotted Towhees, and Dark-eyed Juncos. They all scratch and pick at the ground, racing back into the shelter of bushes en mass when disturbed.

Diet: The main winter diet of these sparrows is grass and weed seeds, but they also readily eat from our bird feeders, though they prefer to clean up what falls to the ground. I also throw out corn grits and meal, and they seem to like that. They also eat buds, new shoots, flowers, and berries. Their summer diet is insects, and that is also what the young are fed.

Nesting: The male defends his territory and sings from the top of a tree or perch in order to attract a mate. Pairs are monogamous, and forage together during breeding season. If a pair begins breeding when there is still snow on the ground, they will build a nest in a tree or shrub, off the ground. If they begin later, after the melt, they may build on the ground in a depression, so the rim is at ground level.The female generally collects the materials and builds the nest while the male follows her and sings. The nest is cup-shaped, made of twigs, dry bark flakes, moss, ferns, leaves, and dry grasses, and lined with fine grasses, animal hair, and downy feathers if available. It is usually disguised with plant materials, or over-hanging branches of low-growing shrubs. The female incubates three to five eggs for 11 to 13 days, with the male probably bringing her food. Both parents help feed the young, which leave the nest at 9 to 11 days but fed by both parents for a while longer. Not much is known about this part of their lives; not many studies have been done on these birds in the arctic.

Migration Status: The entire population of Golden-crowned Sparrows migrates within North America, on breeding territories from April or May, then returning south to their wintering grounds in September and October.

Conservation Status: The Golden-crowned Sparrow is doing well, mostly due to protected far-northern breeding grounds in national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges in the U.S. and Canada.

Where to Find in Grays Harbor: This is one of the most common wintering sparrows in western Washington, and can be found in our yards, parks, gardens, and forested areas on the ground near water.

Dianna Moore | Grays Harbor Audubon