The adult White-crowned Sparrow is very distinctive with its bold black-and-white striped head and plain gray breast. This large sparrow is a regular, though uncommon, migrant and winter resident across Tennessee. It occasionally visits feeders, but its noisy double-footed scratching behavior makes it somewhat easy to detect while foraging in the leaf litter in thick underbrush. The breeding range extends across northern Canada and the western United States, and it spends the winter in western North America, the lower half of the United States, and into northern Mexico. In Tennessee, this sparrow starts to arrive in early October and departs by early May.
Description: The White-crowned Sparrow is a large sparrow with very bold black-and-white stripes on the head, and a small, pale pinkish or yellowish bill. It is brown streaked above and gray below, with a gray face, and a long tail. The head can look distinctly peaked or round, depending on the bird's attitude. First winter birds (August-April) have brown-and-buff striped heads, but otherwise look like adults.
Weight: 1.1 oz.
Voice: The song, which can be heard occasionally on warm winter days, begins with a clear whistle, similar to that of a White-throated Sparrow, and continues with a series of buzzes or trills on different pitches.
- White-throated Sparrow adults have a bright white throat patch, and a yellow spot between the bill and the eye. First-winter White-throats and White-crowns look very similar.
- House Sparrow females look similar to first-winter White-throats, but are smaller, have a shorter tail, and a duller bill and head pattern.
Habitat: During the non-breeding season, these birds frequent thickets, weedy fields, agricultural fields, roadsides, and backyards.
Diet: Insects, seeds, fruit, and plant matter.
Nesting and reproduction: There are no records of White-crowned Sparrows nesting in Tennessee.
Status in Tennessee: The White-crowned Sparrow is a regular, uncommon migrant and winter resident across the state. It usually arrives by early October and departs by early May.
Dynamic map of White-crowned Sparrow eBird observations in Tennessee
- White-crowned Sparrows nesting in northern Alaska migrate about 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California. One radio-tracked White-crowned Sparrow traveled 300 miles in a single night.
- The White-crowned Sparrow is one of the best-studied songbirds in North America. Much of our knowledge of bird song and song development is based on studies of this species.
Best place to see in Tennessee: The White-crowned Sparrow can be found in a variety of shrubby habitats, woodland edges, and at feeders, across the state.
For more information:
Chilton, G., M. C. Baker, C. D. Barrentine and M. A. Cunningham. 1995. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), The Birds of North America, No. 183. (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.