I recently received an email from a reader in New York.
“I just read your article about juncos and saw it is from November 2021,” wrote Alice H. Poundstone. “I just wanted to drop you a note.”
Alice wrote that the juncos were late arriving at her home.
“They did not arrive until about a month ago,” she said. “Normally we get them closer to early November. I live in Congers, New York, in the Hudson Valley.”
Alice’s email got me to thinking about the winter sparrows at my feeders. Along with juncos, I’ve been hosting song sparrows and white-throated sparrows, especially during the recent snowstorms. They are sometimes timid visitors. In addition, there can be squabbles among these flocking birds. It keeps feeder watching entertaining on snowy days.
On a trip to Roan Mountain, I also saw the first white-crowned sparrow that I’ve observed in many years. The white-crowned sparrow and the white-throated sparrow are both members of the genus known as Zonotrichia, which refers to two ancient Greek words for zone and hair, which refers to the pattern of streaks on the backs of these five sparrow species. The Zonotrichia sparrows belong to a large group of birds known as Passerellidae, or American sparrows, which also includes birds such as juncos, towhees and brush finches. Some of the more descriptive names for American sparrows include orange-billed sparrow, white-eared ground sparrow, green-backed sparrow, olive sparrow, cinnamon-tailed sparrow, five-striped sparrow and golden-winged sparrow.
Many sparrows, including the white-throated sparrow, prefer to forage for food on the ground. It’s often helpful to purchase a supply of millet seed. When filling feeders with sunflower seeds, scatter a couple of handfuls of millet seed on the ground beneath the feeders or at the edge of a brushy area. Sparrows like to have quick access to dense cover, so they will feed more securely if the scattered seeds are within quick reach of shelter.
Although they are fairly common winter visitors in the region, the white-throated sparrow makes its presence known most strongly each spring when the birds begin to sing a familiar refrain that has been transcribed in a couple of different ways. Many Americans render the song of the white-throated sparrow as “Ol’ Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” For those living north of the border, the white-throated sparrow sings “O’Canada, O’Canada, O’Canada.” No matter how you translate this sparrow’s song, it’s a sweet and welcome addition to the spring aural landscape.
Most white-throated sparrows depart the region by late April to reach their summer nesting grounds throughout the forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S. and the northern Midwest. In the influx of more showy birds each spring, their absence sometimes goes unnoticed. Nevertheless, it always feels good to welcome them when they return in late October and early November as winter begins extending its grip for the season.
White-crowned sparrows are a little more erratic with their presence in the region. I’ve found them in Roan Mountain on previous visits. I’ve also observed these sparrows in rural western Washington County and at Musick’s Campground at Holston Lake in Sullivan County.
White-crowned sparrows are medium-sized sparrows with considerable gray on breast and back of the neck. Adults of both sexes are adorned with bold black and white head stripes, which gives this bird its common name. Thanks to this distinctive feature, this sparrow truly stands out among a family of birds often labeled as “little brown birds” by birders.
The white-crowned sparrow is known by the scientific name Zonotrichia leucophrys, which translates into English from Ancient Greek as “white eyebrow.”
During the winter season, white-crowned sparrows are known for forming large flocks. They prefer to feed on the ground beneath feeders but will visit platform feeders if they don’t face too much crowding from other birds. In winter, they feed mostly on seeds. In warmer weather, these sparrows will forage for flying insects.
Although this sparrow usually ranges across the United States and Canada, it has been documented as an unusual vagrant to Western Europe. Sightings have taken place in England, Scotland, Ireland and even Norway.
White-crowned sparrows have shown up at my home on a handful of occasions. Their visits have usually been brief affairs during spring and fall migration.
White-crowned sparrows do not nest in the region. They nest far to the north in brushy areas of the taiga and tundra in Alaska and Northern Canada.
It’s not difficult to attract sparrows. White-crowned sparrows can best be encouraged to visit a yard or garden if there is plenty of dense brush and other cover. In this regard, they are similar to Eastern towhees, fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos.