White-Crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia leucophrys
Range Map

White-Crowned Sparrows, with all of their subspecies, breed from the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin states, and north to Alaska and highest latitudes of the Canadian Arctic. These birds thrive at ground level and in low bushes and trees. They are common in the west and not so common in the east. They usually build nests near the ground on small trees or shrubs, but in the tundra of the high Arctic, where there are no shrubs or trees, they will nest on the ground.

Some subspecies are resident and do not migrate, but others travel significant distances each year. For example, the nuttalli subspecies remains year-round on the central coast of California, but the gambelii subspecies make long annual journeys from Alaska and Canada, to as far south as the southern USA and central Mexico.

Today, science recognises four subspecies (some say five) of White-Crowned Sparrow:

  • Z. l. leucophrys breeds in the far north, east of Hudson Bay, to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and south through northern New Mexico, Nevada, southern Utah, and in Cascade-Sierra Nevada ranges, south to southern California. They spend winters in the southern tier of the United States.
  • Z. l. gambelii breeds across North America’s northern tier from Alaska to Hudson Bay, and spends winters south in the southwestern USA through central Mexico.
  • Z. l. pugetensis breeds coastally from southwestern British Columbia to northern California. They spend winters on the west coast of North America, south through southern California.
  • Z. l. nuttalli lives on the central California coast.

I’ve enjoyed encounters with White-Crowned Sparrows during most of my expeditions in the Western USA. In 2005, while on my drive through Canada and Alaska, they were common at most of the stops I made along the journey. When I learned that the birds I was meeting were the same subspecies (gambelii) that wintered in my Southern California yard, I gained a greater respect for the lifestyle of these birds. The subjects I met in Big Bend (Texas) were likely members of the same subspecies who hadn’t begun their migration to their high latitude summer homes yet.

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