For the Birds Radio Program: Golden-crowned Sparrow

Original Air Date: Dec. 26, 1989

An extremely rare bird turned up at a feeder just a mile from Laura’s house. (4:05)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Golden-crowned Sparrow )

On December 15, a full 10 days before Christmas, I got one of the nicest Christmas presents ever. My phone rang at 1:15 in the afternoon, and Burnett Hojnacki, one of my birding friends, told me there was a Golden-crowned Sparrow a few miles away at a hawk bander’s feeder. Burnett offered to pick me up on her way out. I quickly bundled up Tommy and wrote a note to my husband. He was due home in a few minutes—we were planning to take the kids to their 2:30 piano lessons and then go Christmas shopping, and I knew time was short. But a Golden-crowned Sparrow isn’t just any bird—this one was going to be a brand new one on my life list—a lifer. So what choice did I have?

Burnett pulled up, Tommy and I jumped in the car, fastened our seat belts, and we were off. We carefully made our way up Seven Bridges Road, a narrow, windy road which was snow-covered and slick, and made it to the house in a few minutes. As we took off our coats we learned that the bander had been seeing the sparrow for over a month, but being a hawk-bander rather than a dicky-bird watcher, he hadn’t realized just how rare it was.

The moment we gathered at the window, there the bird was, eating sunflower seeds on a flat feeder in a grove of pines, close enough for us to observe his bright yellow crown patch and dark eyebrow line. After a couple of minutes, he came even closer, to another feeder out in the open not far from the window. Golden-crowned Sparrows are birds of the far west, their normal winter range being west of the Coast and Cascade ranges and the Sierra Nevadas from Kodiak Island in Alaska through British Columbia and the Pacific states to northern Baja California.

For some unknown reason, single ones occasionally appear in the east in winter. There have been isolated sightings of individual Golden-crowned Sparrows in North Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Not one has been sighted in Wisconsin since 1856, and this was only the second time one had ever been spotted in Minnesota.

No one really knows why some species are occasionally found thousands of miles from their normal range while other species never are. The Varied Thrush, another bird of the far west, is also a regular vagrant to the east. This year I’ve heard reports of Varied Thrushes from Culver, Duluth, and Cornucopia. Individuals turn up in winter at isolated places, and disappear well before the breeding season. Are they lost, or did they wander on purpose? Do they eventually make it back to their far away homes? Do the same ones wander every year, or are some individuals ultimately cured of their wanderlust? Nobody knows the answers to these questions. It’s the very mystery of these rare sightings that makes them so satisfying and exciting.

The courteous little Golden-crowned Sparrow that appeared in time for me to get to my kids’ piano lessons at 2:30 on the dot will probably stick around that feeder for a few more weeks. Birders from throughout the Midwest will come by to add it to their lifelists or to their Minnesota and St. Louis County lists, or their year lists. I’ll visit it again on New Year’s Day to add it to my 1990 list. And all the while this little wanderer will be caught up in its own day-to-day survival, never having an inkling of all the excitement his journey to Minnesota is giving to so many humans.

(Recording of a Golden-crowned Sparrow )

This is Laura Erickson and this program has been “For the Birds.”