Three sparrows visited my yard recently, true snow birds! White crowned sparrows breed in the far north, often building their nests on tundra in Alaska or northern Canada. They migrate south to locations across the U.S. for winter. Here they forage near thick brush, in overgrown fields or at backyard feeders. The sparrows eat seeds, grains, berries and insects. According to Cornell University Bird Lab one white crowned sparrow with a tracking device flew 300 miles in one night of migration. A human would require five hours in a speeding car on good roads to travel that distance!
These three adults looked perky and rested as they hopped in and out from under a chuparosa plant, pecking at the ground. One after another they flew to the lip of the nearby stone fountain for a sip of water. It was marvelous to hear the trilling song of these debonair birds.
White crowned sparrows have been the focus of bird song studies for years. Mostly it is the males of the species that sing, with females only chiming in to warn others from a breeding territory or a winter food source. The young birds learn to sing within the first couple of months of life. Juveniles learn from their fathers and other males in the area, perfecting the one song that all the white crowns in the territory sing. Over distance and between flocks small differences creep into the songs, until white crowned sparrows boast a dialect that is unique to the area where they grew up. They will return to mate and breed in this specific natal location, and raise their young on the same song. Young sparrows raised as orphans develop a nonsensical song, but young birds that have learned one song and are forced to move to a new geographic breeding ground can sometimes pick up the local dialect. White crowned sparrows’ repertoires include other calls of warning and aggression that are simpler and more universal than their song.
This bird gathers in flocks in the winter, so the group I saw was either a subset of a larger unseen group, or just a very small flock on their own. I’d love to attract more of these striking winter visitors, and read that sunflower seeds are a powerful pull along with brush piles for cover. My super tidy hubby will be thrilled with that idea!
Bird song info from The Singing Life of Birds by Donald Kroodsma