Novato, California

Michael Gedney & Shih-Po Hsu

We’re passionate about birds and nature. That’s why we opened a Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in our community.

Novato, California

Vintage Oaks at Novato,
104 Vintage Way, Suite A-7
Novato, CA 94945

Phone: (415) 893-0500
Fax: (415) 893-0511
Email: Send Message

Store Hours:
Mon - Sat: 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
Sun: 11:00 am - 5:00 pm

Located between Macy's Furniture/BevMo and Pier 1.

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October Birds of the Month: Winter Sparrows

White-crowned Sparrow with meawormWhite-crowned Sparrow with mealworm – Local photo by S. Hunt

The single most prominent event in a yearly go-round of birdfeeding is the arrival of our winter sparrows – an arrival that is ongoing as you read this.  No other migratory birds are so abundant and so easily attracted to feeding stations. The most common are the two crowned sparrows, the white-crowned sparrow and the golden-crowned sparrow, who typically first appear in backyards around the middle of September and then increase through October. These two birds are also the most prominent singers of early fall, when most resident birds have fallen silent – listen to their songs below and then listen on a fall walk around the neighborhood.

Joining the crowned sparrows are a number of other, less abundant species such as the fox, white-throated, and Lincoln's sparrows. While all of these birds eat seeds such as sunflower and white millet, they are most comfortable feeding on the ground or on a broad platform feeder. (If you have a WBU tube feeder, you can easily attach a tray to make it more sparrow-friendly – or let them clean up whatever scraps fall beneath your feeder.) Sparrows will also eat suet, Bark Butter, or mealworms if they can reach them.

White-crowned Sparrow

Identification: Adults are easily recognizable due to their bright white and black crowns, as shown above. Immature birds have brown and tan striped heads, rather than the vivid black and whites. You will see them in your yard – don't be fooled, they're white-crowns too! Their orangish bills are another quick marker for white-crowns of any age; golden-crowns and white-throats have darker, grayish bills.

White-crowned Sparrow - First Winter  
First winter White-crowned Sparrows (born this year) have brown and tan stripes on their head.     Songs vary in their details, but you can get the idea – typically one clear whistle followed by a brief but musical jumble.
  • We commonly hear the newly-arrived white-crowns singing in September and October. They may sing sporadically during winter, and then with increasing frequency before they leave around April.
  • Along the immediate coast we have a separate population of resident white-crowned sparrows that remain all year-round and do not migrate.
  • In September, many more white-crowned sparrows arrive in the Bay Area after breeding in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, or Alaska. For some birds, that's a 2500 mile journey, during which they might travel 70 miles per day.
  • In their scientific name, Zonotrichia leucophrys, leucophrys literally translates to "white eyebrow." While they do indeed have a white crown, you may also think of them as "white-eyebrowed sparrow" with some legitimacy. (We have never known anyone to refer to them in this way in English, but we encourage you to try it out mentally.)

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Identification: The breeding plumage (shown here) is mainly what they look like in Alaska, although you may see some birds with this sharp yellow crown and bold black eyebrow on the borders of winter, when they first arrive in September and then again in March and April before their departure. For most of the winter though, golden-crowns sport only a dully golden cap and lack the thick black eyebrow. Still, even a dull golden crown identifies them pretty easily. Golden-crowned sparrows have no vivid head stripes or breast streaks to speak of.

  • Golden-crowned sparrows have a highly distinctive song, which prompts more questions to us of "what is that bird?" than any other species. While most of our local resident birds stop singing after midsummer, golden-crowns sing frequently upon their arrival in September and October, occasionally throughout the winter (particularly after rainfall), and again increasingly before their departure around April.
  • The typical golden-crowned song consists of three clear whistled notes in a descending pattern (though you'll often hear a shorter version with just the first two notes) and is commonly rendered as "Oh Dear Me." Despondent Yukon gold miners heard it as "I'm so tired" or "No gold here."

Fox Sparrow

Identification: Fox sparrows are large (our largest sparrow, in fact) and dark overall, with heavily streaked breasts. Unlike the bird in the video below, our local "sooty" fox sparrows are dark brown all over except for their breast, which is white with dark brown streaks. They are the "most common of the less common" winter sparrows; while not ubiquitous like the white-crowns and golden-crowns, a good number of yards will see a few over the course of winter, particularly yards with more sheltering brush to hide under.

  • A champion double-foot-kick-scratcher, as seen above, rivaling the spotted towhee for loud and conspicuous feeding technique. Unlike white- and golden-crowns, fox sparrows are often found in more wooded habitats with thicker understories and leaf litter, which they plow through forcefully.
  • One of North America's most geographically varied birds; there are 18 recognized subspecies, divided into four main groups. Our local wintering birds are part of the "Sooty Fox Sparrow" group, which are more or less dark brown all over their heads and backsides, with heavily streaked breasts. The color palette is somewhat similar to a hermit thrush, but this is a darker, bigger, chunkier, and stronger billed bird.

White-throated Sparrow

Identification: White-throated sparrows have a conspicuous white throat and a yellow spot in front of their eyes. The head has either black and white stripes (pictured) or tan and brown stripes. White-throated sparrows are the least common of these four species and many yards won't see any – at least not with merely casual observation. If you regularly supply accessible seed and keep a sharp lookout though, your odds improve dramatically.

White-throated Sparrow

  • Most white-throated sparrows winter east of the Rockies, but there is a disconnected population that winters in western California and Oregon at much lower densities. You may see one occasionally among the flocks of the much more common white-crowned sparrows.
  • White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and birds usually mate with a bird whose stripe color is opposite from their own. This dimorphism, or existence of two genetically distinct forms, in both plumage and behavior is very unique.

Want to read more pages like this? Visit our Bird of the Month Archive.