For the Birds Radio Program: Golden-crowned Sparrow II

Original Air Date: Dec. 27, 1989

Inspired by finally seeing one, Laura dug up lots of information about Golden-crowned Sparrows. (3:43)

Audio missing


(Recording of a Golden-crowned Sparrow )

When I added the Golden-crowned Sparrow—the second state record of this western species—to my lifelist last week, I really didn’t know much about it except what it looked like. Many birders are satisfied with knowing how to identify birds, and pretty much limit their understanding of birds to their field marks, but I think birding is much more satisfying when you know something about how each kind of bird lives out its life. So of course I had to read through as many things as I could to learn about this rare visitor.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow breeds along the Pacific coast in Alaska and in the mountains from central Alaska south to northernmost Washington State. This dapper bird is a bit larger than its closest relative, the White-crowned Sparrow, which it resembles quite a bit except for the conspicuous golden patch on its crown, noticeable even in winter plumage. It spends 8 months of the year in central and southern California, where it flocks with White-crowns and lives in stream side thickets, chapparal broken up by patches of open ground, and garden shrubbery, eating seeds, buds, and flowers. Gardeners and farmers don’t like this species because golden-crowns eat so many annuals and ornamental tree buds. They are especially fond of sprouted seeds, and sometimes descend on new lawns in hordes. They also sometimes do extensive damage to truck gardens during their spring migration.But even from a human economic viewpoint, Golden-crowns aren’t all bad. They not only eat a large number of weed seeds, but they have also been recorded feeding on swarms both of termites and mosquitoes. And on their Arctic breeding grounds they probably eat large quantities of insects.

In winter Golden-crowns form flocks and stay within territories of about 15-20 acres. Individuals from one flock seldom mingle with those from another flock, even when they have adjoining territories. And birds usually return to the same flock and territory each winter.

Golden-crowns are one species that is especially vulnerable to picture windows. Some Californians design their patio windows with split-bamboo drops to minimize bird deaths. And cars also take a heavy toll, since these birds often feed on roadside openings of their thick habitat, like juncoes do in the northland. When they take off, they fly right into the paths of cars. And lighthouses and lighted television and radio towers also take a heavy toll as these birds migrate through the night sky.

Like many species, the golden-crown sings throughout the day when overcast skies foreshadow rain, but since its song is so insistent and easy to pick out, it’s often called the “rain bird.” It is also one of the few songbirds that sings frequently during fall and winter, when most birds’ low hormone levels keep them silent. Alaskan gold miners carrying their heavy packs along the gold trails heard the plaintive whistled song of the Golden-crowned Sparrow as “I’m so weary,” and nicknamed the bird “Weary Willie.”

(Recording of a Golden-crowned Sparrow )

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