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Golden-crowned Sparrow

These sparrows have been named after the small patch of golden yellow on their heads.

The breeding range and winter range of the Golden-crowned Sparrow are both in North America, but they do not overlap, so all individual are migratory. Golden-crowned Sparrows are nocturnal migrants, and they migrate in flocks.
Golden-crowned Sparrows often occur in flocks with White-crowned Sparrows in the winter. Although its normal winter range is the western United States, the Golden-crowned Sparrow has turned up as a vagrant as far away as Florida.


Description of the Golden-crowned Sparrow


The Golden-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow, with black-streaked, brownish upperparts, a gray face and underparts, and reddish-brown wings. A yellow forehead patch of variable size and brightness, and a thick, black line above the eye are distinctive features.  Length: 7 in.  Wingspan: 9 in.

Golden-Crowned Sparrow identification


Photograph © Glenn Bartley.



Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

Duller overall, amount of black on the side of the head varies.


Juveniles are heavily streaked below, and first winter birds lack the black eyeline.


Golden-crowned Sparrows breed in spruce forest and boreal scrub, and winter in a variety of brushy habitats and gardens.


Primarily insects and seeds.

Golden Crowned Sparrow


The Golden-crowned Sparrow forages primarily on the ground, often in flocks.


Golden-crowned Sparrows occur in western Canada and the western U.S., with vagrant records from many states far east of the normal range.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Golden-crowned Sparrow.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History


Fun Facts

Despite its western range, the Golden-crowned Sparrow has turned up as far southeast as Florida as a vagrant.

Golden-crowned Sparrows frequently occur in flocks with White-crowned Sparrows in winter.


The song is made up of three clear whistles, and the call is a short, loud  “chink”, similar to that of the White-crowned Sparrow.

Golden Crowned Sparrow

Similar Species

White-throated Sparrow
White-throated Sparrows are smaller and have a distinct white throat.  They also have yellow lores rather than a yellow forehead patch.  Adult White-crowned Sparrows have bold black stripes on the crown, but lack the yellow forehead patch and have a bold white line above the eye.  First winter White-crowned Sparrows lack any yellow in the forecrown.

White-crowned Sparrow
Winter White-crowned Sparrows have a redish brown, streaked crown.


The nest is a cup of grasses, weeds, and leaves and is usually placed on the ground under a shrub.

Number: Usually lay 3-5 eggs.
Color: White or greenish with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11-12 days, and leave the nest in another 9 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Golden-crowned Sparrow

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Golden-crowned Sparrow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



Contributed by JUNEA W. KELLY


The strikingly handsome golden-crowned sparrow, the largest of the so-called “crowned” sparrows, is a bird of extreme western North America and many of the offshore islands. From its summer home just south of the Arctic Circle to its casual occurrences in winter just north of the Tropic of Cancer in southern Baja California, it ranges through more than 40 degrees of latitude. A common and familiar species, it winters plentifully from Vancouver Island south to northern Baja California, with central and southern California its winter metropolis. Announcing its arrival in autumn with its plaintive song of three descending minor notes, it spends 8 months of the year in this region.

On its California wintering grounds Joseph Grinnell and Alden H. Miller (1944) say it inhabits “An interrupted type of brushland, such as constituted by streamside thickets, chaparral where broken up by patches of open ground, and garden shrubbery. The cover sought is somewhat shadier and cooler on the average than that frequented by Gambel white-crowned sparrows, although commonly the two kinds of sparrows are members of the same flock.”

Golden Crowned Sparrow

Spring: The movement northward from the wintering grounds apparently starts in April. The spring migration is largely along the coast and through the coastal lowlands and valleys. That individuals occasionally stray to higher elevations is attested by birds in spring plumage found frozen at 14,350 feet on Mt. Shasta (Chamberlain, 1916) and at 14,403 on Mt. Rainier (Brockman, 1941). Most birds have left California by the end of the first week of May. Ira N. Gabrielson and Stanley G. Jewett (1940) report the species most plentiful in Oregon in April and early May, with a latest day of May25 in Lane County. Stanley G. Jewett et al. (1953) state that in Washington:

The golden-crowned sparrow is a very common spring migrant west of the Cascade Mountains, where it begins appearing in some numbers the last week in April. According to Lien (Brown) the main body of the birds arrives at the Destruction Island Lighthouse between May 1 and 10. It is said to be impossible for the light-keepers to raise any garden truck while the flight is on, as the birds come in immense flocks, much larger, apparently, than any appearing on the mainland. Some of the birds conic to grief against the light; Lien counted 29 golden-crowns killed in this way between April 24 and May 26, 1016. Between April 28 and May 7, 1018, Bailey found golden-crowned sparrows common about Port Angeles and all through the valleys of the Elwha, Soleduck, Bogachiel, and Hoh rivers, often in considerable flocks wherever grain was to be found by the roadside or weed seeds in the open. Their cheery songs, he writes, were generally the loudest of the morning chorus.

Eastern Washington is evidently off’ the main path of migration of the golden-crown, though there are a few scattered records for that part of the state.

The birds reach their Alaska breeding grounds in May, according to Ira N. Gabrielson and Frederick C. Lincoln (1959), “early dates being Kiglauik Mountains, May 18; Hooper Bay, May 22; Nushagak, May 10; Chignik, May 14; and False Pass, May 5.” George Willett (1920) reports from Forrester Island, “Golden-crowned Sparrows were usually plentiful from May 8 to 19.” Brinda Kessel writes in a letter from College, Alaska, of observing birds there between May 2 and May 20, 1956. Joseph Grinnell (1900) first noted one May 23 in the Kotzebue Sound region, where he did not consider the species common. Harry S. Swarth (1934) collected one at Sitkalidak Island May 15, and Charles Sheldon (1909) reports seeing one May 26 on the upper Toklat River near Mount McKinley.

At the west end of the Alaska Peninsula Olaus J. Murie (1959) writes:

“May 22, near Moffet Cove on Izembek Bay, I heard the first golden-crowned sparrow. Next day there were many * * *. They were common among the alders, as far as these bushes grow up the valley toward Aghileem Pinnacles. They were noted in the alder patches at the base of Frosty Peak, at False Pass, and Ikatan. While not as numerous as some other sparrows, the golden-crown nests commonly throughout the region covered, though local range is naturally governed by the boundaries of the alder patches, which are by no means universally distributed.”

Nesting: In its Alaskan summer home the golden-crown occupies the high Hudsonian and Alpine-Arctic zones of the coastal regions rather than of the interior. Francis S. L. Williamson sent me the following unpublished notes from Anchorage in October, 1950:

“The species arrives at this latitude around the middle of May when there is frequently deep snow on its mountain nesting grounds. Nesting commences fairly promptly, toward the end of May, and reaches a peak in mid or late June. The birds are found on all the local mountains, primarily in the deep stream-carved canyons above timber line. They are abundant in both alder thickets and in the extremely dense herbaceous vegetation between timber line and the more alpine, heath-covered slopes of the higher country. They also occur locally in several places at sea level, usually where brush-covered slopes extend abruptly down to the shore as at Potter and Hope on Turnagain Arm. Farther down the Kenai Peninsula they are found along Cook Inlet at several low localities as at Deep Creek. During the last two nesting seasons on the Kuskokwim River near Bethel I saw only one bird, but the Eskimos tell me they are common m the dense alder and willow thickets bordering the numerous sloughs farther down the river toward the coast at Kwinhok.”

No studies of the nesting habits of this species have ever been made, and little is known of its courtship, territoriality, incubation, or natal care. Donald D. McLean wrote me in a letter from Sacramento, Calif. “Courtship just barely begins before they leave for the north and I doubt if any actual choice of mates takes place. I have seldom heard their song in California sung at what I would consider full power.” Persons familiar with the species in Alaska during June comment often on the continuous singing of males perched on the top of low bushes or matted birches, alders, and balsams.

Sidney B. Peyton wrote me: “A number of nests were found on June 18, 1955 in the Little Susitna Canyon about 60 miles north of Anchorage. The nests were quite bulky and well made of dry fern leaves and stems, dry grass, and willow leaves. Some were lined with grass alone, others with mixed grass and moose hair. The only nest above the ground was on the horizontal branch of a small willow tree and well hidden under last year’s dry ferns. The others were sunk in the ground at the base of small willows and were very well hidden. * * * The nests contained equal numbers of four and five eggs, and all were about the same stage of incubation of about a week. * * * The same territory was covered June 23, 1956 and only one nest was located and only one other pair was seen. The time of the melting snow seems to govern their nesting in this locality.” The average dimensions of several nests were: inside depth 2 inches, inside diameter 23/4 inches, walls 2 inches.

Harry S. Swarth (1934) writes: “A nest was found on Kodiak Island on June 11, containing three heavily incubated eggs. It was placed in a depression in the ground on a steep bank and was fairly well concealed by overhanging grass. On Nunivak, July 3, a nest was found containing young a week old. This was in a willow thicket on the top of a mound, the nest on the ground, almost entirely hidden by a dense network of tangled willow branches. Both parents were feeding the young.” Alfred M. Bailey (1943) collected a nest at the end of the Seward Peninsula June 9, 1940 “in the moss on the ground along the foundation of an abandoned igloo.”

In British Columbia Louis B. Bishop (1900) writes, “Osgood found an almost finished nest in a conifer at Summit Lake June 12. It was composed of sticks and moss, lined with grass, and placed about 2½ feet from the ground.” From the Atlin region Harry S. Swarth (1926) describes his search for this species’ nests at the summit of Monarch Mountain at some 4,500 feet altitude June 19, 1924. After a fruitless examination of the balsams, a nest was found in a mat of birch.

A ledge of rock protruded a few inches from the ground in the center of the thicket, and the neat was sunk against this shelter, fairly well concealed by the vegetation above. There were five eggs, incubated about one-half. Within a few hundred yards a second nest was found in a similar situation, on the ground under some trailing birch, with four eggs incubated as the first lot were.

The first nest was built externally of gray plant fiber, a few balsam twigs, bits of dried flakes of bark, and a very little green moss; the lining was of dry grass, with several white ptarmigan feathers interwoven. External diameter, 120 mm.; internal diameter, 65 mm.; outside depth, 55 mm.; inside depth, 35 mm.

* * * Several hours after our first two discoveries, Brooks found a third ~nest, this one in a low thicket of balsam, a thicket about twenty feet square but with the sprawling branches rising not more than knee high above the ground. The nest was in the branches, about ten inches up, and was much bulkier than those on the ground. * * * The whole nest was about 180 mm. in diameter, and 90 mm. deep. The nest cavity was 76 mm. across. It contained four fresh eggs. * * *

On June 22 a fourth nest was found on the same mountain, in much the same situation as the first two.

On August 5 a nest was found on Spruce Mountain “containing naked young, probably about a week old.”

Eggs: The golden-crowned sparrow usually lays from 3 to 5 slightly glossy eggs. They are ovate although some tend to elongate ovate. The ground is creamy or pale bluish white and heavily speckled, spotted, and blotched with reddish browns such as “natal brown,” “Verona brown,” “Mars brown,” “russet,” or “chestnut.” Some eggs have a few undermarkings of “pale neutral gray.” There is considerable variation; often the bluish white ground color is entirely obscured either with very fine speckles or large clouded blotches which give it the appearance of being soft brown. These eggs are practically indistinguishable from those of the white-crowned sparrow, except that they average slightly larger. The measurements of 42 eggs average 22.7 by 16.4 mm; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.0 by 16.7, 22.9 by 17.92, 21.2 by 16,3, and 21.5 by 15.2 millimeters: WGFH

Young: Nothing is known of incubation in this species. Probably, as in other Zonotrichias, it is by the female alone, but its duration has never been determined. Ian McT. Cowan writes me in a letter that a female nesting at Emigrants Peak, Jasper Park, on June 22, 1946 “stayed on the nest constantly and was repeatedly fed on the nest by her mate. The feeding was accompanied by a begging display similar to that of fledged young. The weather was cold with sleet and snow.” Nor has anything ever been published on the nest life and development of the young birds. Harry S. Swarth (1924) describes reaching the species’ breeding grounds above timber line in the northern British Columbia mountains on July 22 to find “the young were out of the nest and flying about; the old birds could be seen singing from perches above the thickets in which they dwelt.” He found the young so exceptionally wary he had great difficulty collecting three juvenile specimens:

At the first sign of danger a loud chip from the parent sends every youngster within hearing scuttling for the nearest tangle of prostrate balsam, but not to remain there. A prompt retreat is made to the far side of the bush, followed quickly by flight to another thicket perhaps a hundred yards away. Pursuit is heralded by warning alarm notes from the parent, and the youngster again flees to another refuge. Further pursuit is generally useless. In fact, young birds were seen to go five hundred yards or more in one flight when followed up. Meanwhile, the old bird, perhaps joined by others, remains nearby, giving warning from some conspicuous perch, utterly indifferent to approach within a few yards. * * *

The extreme wariness of the young golden-crowned sparrow is a trait that receives emphasis from the fact that, when the first winter plumage is attained a few weeks later, these same young birds are peculiarly tame and unsuspicious. Then they will permit of close approach, will in fact come themselves to inspect the stranger in the woods.

Plumages and Molts: The natal down of the golden-crowned sparrow has never been described. Richard R. Graber (1955) describes the juvenal plumage as follows:

“No obvious sexual dimorphism. Feathers above nostrils light brown. Forehead and crown brown laterally, light buff medially. Light median area expands posteriorly. Entire crown streaked with black, least heavily on occiput. (A suggestion of light crown spot of adult.) Occiput and nape tinged with rusty brown, laterally. Back streaked with black and shades of bufty brown. Rump and upper tail coverts light brown obscurely marked with dark. Rectrices dull brown. Remiges dark gray (upper tertials black); primaries edged with buffy white, tertials with rust tipped with buffy white. Lesser coverts light brown, middle coverts blackish tipped with white. Greater coverts edged with rust, tipped with white. Two rather narrow wing-bars. Lores gray. Eye-ring buff above, whitish below. Auriculars mottled with gray, buff, and brown. Post-auriculars whitish, streaked with brown or black. Chin and throat whitish, flecked with black. Sides of chin and throat heavily marked with black. Underparts cream colored, not white as in other Zonotrichia. Chest, sides, and flanks heavily streaked with black. Belly and crissum sparsely spotted with black. Leg feathers brown and cream.”

In his report on the Atlin region of British Columbia, Swarth (1926) states that this plumage in the golden-crown

* * * is generally similar to the same stage in the three species of white-crowned sparrows. Coronata lacks the decided bead markings that are seen in the juvenal white-crowns and it has a suggestion of yellowish upon the forehead. Compared with the grayish leucophrys, young coronata is generally darker colored and the ventral streaks are darker, heavier, and more extensive. Compared with gembelii, young coronata is generally browner. Young coronata and young nuttalli are closely similar in body coloration, but the former is slightly darker colored as a rule. Coronata has a heavier bill than the white-crowned sparrows, and this character is apparent in the young birds.

The accompanying illustration (pl. 4) was made [by Major Allan Brooks] from studies of the freshly killed bird. The yellowish tinge to the lower parts, as there shown, is an evanescent color that soon disappears from the study skin. * * *

On July 18 young were taken in juvenal plumage throughout and with full-grown rectrices. Others molting into first winter plumage were collected July 27 and August 5. One young bird still mostly in juvenal plumage was taken August 24.

Robert Ridgway (1901) describes the young in first winter plumage as “Similar to adult female. but without any lateral black stripe on pileum or well-defined median stripe, the whole forehead and anterior portion of crown yellowish olive, more or less flecked with dusky (sometimes with more or less indication of a black lateral stripe), the posterior portion of the pileum light grayish olive-brown, streaked with dusky.” This dress is apparently assumed by a partial molt of the juvenal plumage before the birds leave the nesting ground.

The adult breeding plumage with its prominent yellow and grey median crown stripe is attained by a spring molt that starts in late winter and involves most of the head and body feathers, the tertiaries, the secondary coverts, and the central pair of tail feathers. In his excellent description of the process J. E. Law (1929b) notes:

In individuals, the progress of molt seems to vary. One tract or another may be relatively further along in different birds, * * *. The time of molt is more erratic. On any day, in March and April, one may take birds of the same species which appear to be a month apart in progress of molt. Individuals with feathers still growing may he caught even in early May when all but a few members of the flocks of Z. coronata and Z. gambelii have departed from southern California, but most of the last to go have completed their molt before they depart. * * *

I have not detected regular spring molt in any of the following tract series: Primary and secondary remiges, alula, upper and under primary coverts, outer five pairs of rectrices, dorsal saddle, and rump. It is significant that when wings and tail are folded, as they are much of the time that the bird is not flying, all of the above series are covered. The tertiaries cover the primaries and secondaries, the greater secondary coverts cover the alula and primary coverts, the under secondary coverts cover the under primary coverts, the wing covers the dorsal saddle and rump, and the deck [central] rectrices cover the remaining pairs of tail feathers. It appears, therefore, that only the tracts of the body directly exposed to abrasion and sunlight are renewed in the spring molt. * * *

When the spring molt is completed these western representatives of the Zonotrichiae are resplendent in a new plumage with very little difference if any between the sexes. No one who has noticed the frayed ragamuffins of late February and March and the stunning beauties of late April can doubt that the exposed contour plumage has been entirely renewed.

Before leaving the breeding grounds the adult birds undergo a complete postnuptial molt in which the bright head pattern is generally replaced by a considerably duller one. As Joseph Mailliard (1932), Emerson A. Stoner (1955), and Anna M. Smith (1958) have all noted, the crown stripes of adults in winter vary greatly, and at least five distinct types are recognizable. Whether these reflect sex or, more likely, age or vigor of the individual has not yet been determined satisfactorily.

Food: On its California wintering grounds the golden-crowned sparrow subsists almost entirely on vegetable matter. Foster E. Beal (1910) reports: “For the determination of its food 184 stomachs were available, taken from October to April, inclusive. The animal food amounts to 0.9 percent, vegetable to 99.1.

* * * It is evident that the golden-crown does not search for insects, and takes only those that come in its way. * * *

“Remains of buds and flowers were found in stomachs taken in every month of the bird’s stay in the State, except October and November, when buds are very small. They were found in 56 stomachs; the average for the season is 29.5 percent, and in March it rises to nearly 78 percent.”

Their fondness for buds and flowers does not make them welcome in the garden. They take a heavy toll of annuals, especially in California where many are planted in the autumn. They are particularly hard on ranunculus, stocks, primulas, pansies. and even eat such bitter leaves as those of calendulas. In the fall they do not hesitate to eat chrysanthemum flowers, and they also take buds of ornamental fruit trees and wistaria. They sometimes make serious inroads in truck gardens in the path of their spring migration (see Spring), and Edward W. Nelson (1881) notes they “claim their share of attention as they levy their tax upon the garden” in the settlement at St. Michael’s, Alaska.

Grinnell and Storer (1924) observe: “In foraging, these sparrows, in scattered formation, advance out from the margins of the brush patches onto open ground where they hop here and there seeking their food, which is chiefly of a vegetable nature. They feed in particular upon green seedlings of various weeds.’ When the birds chop up between the edges of their mandibles the sprouting succulent seedlings, the exuding juice soils their faces and not infrequently even the plumage of their breasts. After the first rains have started the new growth of annuals, the bills of the birds are quite characteristically gummed up with dried green stuff.”

Joseph Maillard (1926) found the golden-crowns greatly preferred newly-sprouted weed seeds, up after a heavy October rain, to the grain bait spread before a trap. R. P. Parsons writes me in a letter from Carmel, Calif., “They have a most notable and special preference for newly planted lawns. They did not bother the seeds, but when it had sprouted and was 2 to 3 days above the surface, they descended on the new lawn in hordes.”

Harold W. Clark (1930) found them feeding on small, black, bitter olives fallen from the trees in his yard after a heavy February frost. John McB. Robertson (1931) says they eat the plentiful seeds of Eucalyptus globulus. Robert S. Woods (1932) noted they are especially fond of young plants of the cabbage family and of beets and peas, but ignore carrots; also that they eat seeds of the naturalized tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca).

Amelia S. Allen (1943) noted them in Berkeley, Calif., among the birds coming from the shrubbery to feed on swarms of winged termites that dropped to the pavement and shed their wings in early November. Peyton wrote me that on their nesting ground in Sustina Canyon the birds were eating mosquitoes. While there is little in the literature on their food habits in the north in summer, it is highly probable that, like the other Zonotrichias, they consume fair quantities of insects during the nesting season, and also feed them to their young. Gabrielson and Lincoln (1959) write that in Alaska “Gabrielson has seen them in company with other sparrows feeding on weed seeds about the edges of cultivated fields and in villages. He has also seen them in the tundra country feeding close to the alder patches on crowberries and other small fruits found in this habitat. On one or two occasions he has noted birds with insects in their bills obviously carrying food to their young, and it is probable that they regularly take such insect life as is available in the vicinity of their nests.”

Voice: The golden-crown’s characteristic song is composed of three clearly whistled notes descending in a minor key and suggesting the words “Oh, dear me.” To the miners carrying their packs along the Alaska gold trails the constantly repeated plaintive notes seemed to say “I’m so weary,” and they nicknamed the singer “Weary Willy.” Its habit of repeating its notes over and over again on dark days preceding rain has also earned it the name of “rain bird.”

Frank N. Bassett (1920) gives the following musician’s notation of the song: “There seems to be one song which is typical of the species, but occasionally it is transposed into other keys, and less frequently there are variations in it. * * * the most frequently heard song, outnumbering all the variations together. It begins on F [in the third octave above middle C] and with a gradual slur amounting to a glissando it descends one tone to E flat where there is a slight break and the E flat is struck again with a decided accent, passing a minor third lower to C without any special marks of expression. This last interval naturally pitches the song in C minor.” He heard the typical song given in five different keys ranging from a whole tone higher (D minor) to a whole tone lower (B-flat minor), and noted three variations, lie adds: “The tempo is the same for all songs, about 120 whole notes to the minute, although this may vary somewhat. The quality of tone is that of harmonics on the violin.”

The birds usually sing from the top of a bush or, if lower down, from its periphery. In California they sing frequently from their arrival in September through October. Although singing diminishes during the winter, it does not step entirely, and it picks up again quickly when the days start to lengthen in early spring. Often in the slack season one hears only the first two of the usual three minor descending notes. A common variation in April has the third and final note rising slightly instead of falling. Olaus J. Murie (1959) writes from Alaska: “On one occasion I heard a distinct variation of the song. Instead of three notes in descending scale, the usual second and third notes were reversed. It was the normal song for this bird, as I heard it day after day in the same clump of alder near camp.’

D. D. McLean says in a letter to me: “The typical Zonotrichia “chink” in the golden-crown is bard, insistent, and louder than in most other species, and the “tizeet” note is sharper and not so slurred. When feeding or loafing, the birds use much small talk of “chips,” “churrs,” and a “plear, plear, plear, plear” used as a scold-like greeting.” Howard L. Cogswell writes me of hearing the three minor notes followed by a soft trill, once in November at Sunland, Calif., and twice in October near Pasadena. Peterson (1941) also remarks “sometimes a faint final trill.” Grinnell and Storer (1924) state: “On occasion the Golden-crown is heard to indulge in a whisper song which is so faint as to be heard only at a very few yards’ range.”

Behavior: On the wintering grounds the golden-crowned sparrows are usually found in mixed flocks with white-crowned sparrows. Often while watching white-crowns feeding on a lawn, one will notice a few golden-crowns coming out of adjacent shrubbery, usually staying close to the shrubbery and disappearing into it quickly when one approaches. John B. Price (1931) notes “Although easier to trap than the white-crowns, the golden-crowns are harder to observe in the field as they keep more in the bushes.”

D. D. McLean writes me: “When feeding, this species is relatively quarrelsome toward others of the same species and genus. * * *

When loafing, they are more tolerant of their own kind and other species. Mixed flocks of Zonotrichias spend much of their time perched in or near the tops of bushes whisper-singing, preening, and carrying on twittering small talk. When such flocks are disturbed, they rarely fly en masse to new cover, but string along in singles and small groups. One thing I have particularly noted of interest to me is the fact that they rarely climb very high in trees during the winter, and about 25 feet would be near the maximum. However, in the spring during or just prior to the general move, they often go up to 60 or 70 feet. It has also been noted that most flights from these heights have been northward unless startled or forced in some other direction.”

When they are excited, and sometimes when they are about to take flight or move to another perch, birds raise the feathers of the crown.

Gabrielson and Lincoln (1959) write “* * * this bird does not normally fly long distances but, when pressed closely, moves from one bush to another. It is adept at flying close to the ground from one patch of cover to gain access to another before becoming visible to an observer and is conspicuous only when it is in song during the breeding season and as an element of the feeding hordes of migrant sparrows in the fall.”

Through observations on banded and color-stained birds, John B. Price (1931) found that golden crowns wintering on the Stanford campus, instead of establishing individual territories, formed distinct flocks that stayed within definite circumscribed areas of about 15 or 20 acres. Individuals from one flock seldom intermingled with those of other flocks on adjoining territories. He also found that individual birds returning to Stanford in successive winters tended strongly to return to the same flock territory. Eustace L. Sumner, Sr. (1933) discusses the species’ homing instincts and flocking proclivities at Berkeley where he found similar fidelity to wintering territories and adds “The birds may desert the dry hillsides for the bottom of the canyon because in the latter location more green food is to be had; or they may leave because they do not like hot weather.”

Field marks: The golden-crown is the largest of the “crowned” sparrows and is darker brown than most of them. Peterson (1941) calls the adult “Like a White-crowned Sparrow with no white line over the eye and a golden yellow, instead of white, stripe through the center of the crown. Immature White-crowns (Gambel’s, etc.) have the center of the crown buffy and resemble the Golden-crown, but have broad buffy lines over the eyes, which the latter species lacks. Immature Golden-crowns look like large female House Sparrows, but are browner and sometimes have a dull yellowish suffusion on the crown. Often they lack this yellow suffusion and are very plain.

These birds have little distinctive about them, unless it be the fine streaking on the otherwise unpatterned crown.”

Enemies: D. D. McLean says in a letter, “Enemies include the feral house cat, sharp-shinned hawk, pigeon hawk, boreal shrike, pigmy owl, screech owl, marsh hawk, and occasionally the Cooper’s hawk. Among the major killers on their winter ranges in and around cities are picture windows and windows in patios where the birds can see through to other yards or shrubbery. During the first fall at my present residence in San Jose, as many as four golden-crowns and white-crowns were killed or badly injured in my neighborhood in one day after the birds first arrived in the area. Our subdivision was built up among the trees of a former prune and walnut orchard that apparently had been a regular wintering area for Zonotrichia. Most of us with patio windows now have split-bamboo drops to help prevent bird losses. Automobiles kill many along our highways as the birds fly across in front of speeding vehicles.”

In this connection light-houses should be mentioned for, being night-migrants, many golden-crowns come to grief against them in thick weather, as noted (Spring) at Destruction Island, and duplicated at Triple Island light-house according to G. C. Odlum (in litt.).

Charles N. Richardson, Jr. (1908) watched a loggerhead shrike pursue a golden-crown in the open and finally kill it after it had sought protection in a thick bush. Ian McT. Cowan writes me of four newly-hatched young in a nest he found July 13, 1930 in Tonquin Valley, Jasper Park, being killed by a Columbian ground squirrel.

Fall and winter: F. S. L. Williamson wrote me from Anchorage, Alaska, “The bulk of the birds leave this region in late July and early August, but I have seen juveniles until mid-September.” Willett (1914) calls it an abundant migrant near Sitka “noticed from shoreline to above timberline on the mountains,” arriving September 1 and still present in some numbers a month later. For the same area he wrote some years later (1928), “Most plentiful in fall migration between September 28 and October 12,” with extreme dates of September 8 and October 21.

Concerning the southward flight Jewett et al. (1953) state:

“In the fall the mountain route is evidently popular with the golden-crowns, and the coast route nearly deserted. Our first records are for the alpine parks of Mt. Rainier, not far from timber line, September 2, 1919. After this date the species became more and more plentiful, occurring in scores or even hundreds in the moist subalpine meadows and greatly outnumbering the Gambel and Lincoln sparrows which also were common. * * * The main body of the migrating golden-crowns in the fall seems to cross the Columbia in the vicinity of Carson and Skamania, just where the river cuts through the Cascade Mountains. The birds were noted migrating at Carson on September 10, 1918, after which date they became the most abundant sparrow, and they were still numerous at Skamania, September 29.”

In California Grinnell and Storer (1924) report “Our earliest seasonal record for Golden-crowned Sparrow was made on October 2, (1915) when at least 7 adult and immature birds were seen in a coffee-berry thicket in Yosemite Valley. Thereafter, for a month or so, the species was noted in a number of places in the higher country * * *

For the San Francisco Bay region Grinnell and Wythe (1927) report, “Arrives in the fall earlier and stays later in the spring than most other winter visiting birds. Has been observed as early as August 31 and is generally common by the last week of September.” The species is becoming even commoner of late in the Bay area as suburban housing developments are being built on dry hillsides and other sites that in the past were unfavorable habitat. Feeding trays and bird baths in the suburban gardens supply ample food and water. On one patio in the Oakland Hills 60 golden-crowns were counted at one tune recently.

Grinnell and Miller (1944) write: “Metropolis of wintering ground, the lower western and southern portions of California lying west of the Sierran divides and below the 4,000-foot contour of altitude. Winters regularly north to head of Sacramento Valley and on coast north at least to Humboldt County and south to San Diego County. * * * recorded from most of the islands. At times of migration reaches probably nearly all parts of the State.”


Range: Alaska, Yukon, and western Alberta south to Baja California, northern Sonora, and Arizona.

Breeding range: The golden-crowned sparrow breeds from western coastal Alaska (Cape Prince of Wales, Kobuk River Delta, Nunivak and Kodiak islands) and south-central Yukon (Rose River) south to southeastern Alaska (Lynn Canal), southern British Columbia (Alta Lake, Moose Pass), southwestern Alberta (Banff), and in the Cascade Mountains to extreme northern Washington (Okanogan County); casual in summer north to northern Alaska (Barrow).

Winter range: Winters from southern British Columbia (Victoria, Okanagan Landing) southward, principally west of the Cascade Range and the Sierra Nevada, to northern Baja California (lat. 30° N.), casually south to southern Baja California (Cedros and Guadalupe islands, Cape San Lucas), Arizona (Ajo Mountains), and northern Sonora (Caborca) and east to Utah (Zion National Park), Colorado (Wray), and New Mexico (upper Gila River).

Casual records: Casual east to Saskatchewan (Saskatoon, Regina, Indian Head), Colorado (Two Buttes Reservoir), Wisconsin (Racine), Illinois (Waukegan), Massachusetts (Bedford, Quincy), Pennsylvania (Easton), New Jersey (Cape May), Alabama (Dauphin Island), Louisiana (Grand Isle), and Texas (Orange County, Palo Duro, Canutilo).

Accidental in Japan (Honshu).

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: Illinois: Chicago, April 29. Saskatchewan: Saskatoon, May 18. Colorado: Salida, April 19. Utah: Shunes Creek, April 22. Nevada: Overton, March 31; Churchill, April 30. Oregon: Malheur Refuge, April 29. Washington: Lake Crescent, April 18; Everson, April 21 (median of 8 years, April 28). Yukon: Sheldon Lake, May 19. Alaska: Mt. McKinley, May 26. Late dates of spring departure are: Arizona: Springerville, April 25. California: San Diego County, May 23. Oregon: Malheur Refuge, May 30. Washington: Tacoma, May 25. Early dates of fall arrival are: Washington: Mt. Rainier, September 2. Oregon: Klamath County, September 10. California: Santa Clara County, August 31. Idaho: Moscow, September 7. Arizona: Grand Canyon, October 8. Late dates of fall departure are: Alaska: Wrangell, October 21. Washington: Tenino, November 26. Idaho: Potlatch, October 6. Illinois: Waukegan, November 28. Pennsylvania: Tinicum, November 12. Alabama: Dauphin Island, November 9.

Egg dates: Alaska: 31 records, May 27 to June 28; 18 records, June 8 to June 18.

British Columbia: 2 records, June 19 and July 28.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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