Royal Bird: Meet the White Crowned Sparrow

Updated: Feb. 04, 2022

With crisp black-and-white head stripes and regional differences in song, this stunning sparrow is anything but ordinary.

You see a flutter near your feeder and sneak a peek. Oh, it’s just a house sparrow. But wait! Maybe you should take a closer look. You might be in the presence of royalty: The white crowned sparrow.

Here’s everything you need to know about white crowned sparrows, including what male and female white crowned sparrow birds look like, where to find them, how to attract them to your yard and how to ID a white crowned sparrow by its song.

Learn all about sparrows: Find out what birders should know.

What Does a White Crowned Sparrow Look Like? Keys to ID

white-crowned sparrow, juvenile, adultCourtesy Jennifer Brohl
Adult and juvenile white crowned sparrows

While white crowned sparrows may look ordinary at first glance, their black-and-white-adorned heads, gray breasts and orange-colored bills let you know that royalty is on the premises. Males and females look the same, while friendly juvenile white crowneds feature bold nutmeg brown stripes on top of their heads. Those stripes typically turn black and white the following spring, when the bird is almost a year old.

A sparrow’s stout conical bill makes it the perfect tool for cracking seeds. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, white crowned sparrows that breed along the Pacific Coast have yellow bills, while those that breed from Alaska to Hudson Bay sport orange. Birds that breed east of Hudson Bay and in the Rockies boast a pretty pink bill.

A look-alike, the white throated sparrow, has a yellow spot in front of each eye.

Range and Migration

Some of these handsome birds spend their summers on the tundra or in the alpine meadows and boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. For many living in the United States, their winter appearances are considered something special. “Over most of the country, white crowned sparrows are winter visitors, appearing between September and April,” says Dr. Emma Greig, head of Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “In the Northwest, they can be seen throughout the year. In areas through which they migrate—the Northeast and northern Midwest—people see them pass through in spring and then again in fall.”

What Does a White Crowned Sparrow Eat?

white-crowned sparrowCourtesy Joan Sparks
White crowned sparrows are seed eaters

A white crowned’s year-round diet consists mostly of seeds and plant material. But once nesting season rolls around, they add insects into the mix. Nesting sparrows like to dine on and feed their hatchlings a variety of insects, such as caterpillars, wasps and beetles, that they sometimes catch in midair!

In winter, these sparrows travel in flocks and are normally seen hopping through brush near open and overgrown fields or along low branches, where they forage for weed and grass seeds. “White crowned sparrows have a funny foraging behavior,” Emma says. “They do a backwards scratch with both feet and then a forward hop towards whatever they’ve unearthed. It’s a behavior that may be familiar because towhees, another ground forager, do it as well. When they do this in dry leaves, they can sound much larger than they really are.”

Be on the lookout for the American tree sparrow in winter.

Nest and Eggs

Pairs often lay three to seven heavily spotted eggs that range from creamy white to green-blue in hue. Nests are made from moss, bark, pine needles, twigs and grasses, and then lined with fine grass, animal hair and feathers. Females are the sole incubators, sitting on the nest for about two weeks until the eggs hatch.

Learn how to keep house sparrows out of bluebird boxes.

How to Attract White Crowned Sparrows

white crowned sparrowCourtesy Caleb Schmucker
White crowned sparrows will visit ground feeders

Coaxing these foraging flocks to your backyard is easy. “White crowned sparrows eat sunflower seeds, millet and cracked corn,” Emma says. “They prefer to eat on the ground, so scatter seeds there or offer seeds on a platform feeder.”

Emma also adds, “Like other sparrows, white crowneds enjoy a good brush pile, which offers cover and insects to small birds.”

Psst—don’t forget native sparrows at your bird feeders!

White Crowned Sparrow Song

Be sure to keep an ear out for the clear, sweet whistle of the male white crowned sparrow song (females also sing, but less so) in winter—a time when many other songbirds have stopped singing. Listen for differences in the songs. This species is famous for developing regional “dialects.” The singers you hear may have picked up their tunes from white crowneds in a completely different area.

Next, learn how to identify a Lincoln’s sparrow and a chipping sparrow.