Gold is Back

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

Quick Extra: More volunteers wanted this Saturday 10/29/22 at 9 am to prepare the ground for the Native Pollinator Habitat going in next month. Meet at 9 am at the parking circle end of Spinnaker Way. Details: call Volunteer Coordinator Bob Huttar at (949) 307-5918

The White-crowned Sparrow returned to the park just a couple of weeks ago, and I guessed that its golden-crowned cousin wouldn’t be far behind. And there it is, in a dried Fennel stalk on the north side of the park. There are undoubtedly others out of view, including one that’s singing, but numbers approaching the size of a flock seeme unlikely. A century ago dense winter flocks descended on crop fields and gardens, eating everything. They were listed as an invasive pest. No more.

Part of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. Photo by Sarvis, John –

Their DNA is near enough to the White-crowned Sparrows to allow the occasional hybrid. The two species often keep company. But somehow scientists have concentrated their research on the White-crowned, and we have learned a great deal about that remarkable bird. The Golden-crowned, by contrast, “remains one of our more poorly known native passerines,” according to the authors of Birds of the World. What’s known is that it breeds mostly in Alaska, in coastal shrubland such as the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge (photo), as well as in interior mountains. Its breeding range extends into the Yukon Territory and British Columbia. In winter it migrates along the Pacific Coast as far south as the Mexican border. It’s a regular winter visitor in Chavez Park, sometimes in small flocks, but not usually as numerous as the White-crowned.

Males tend to migrate separately and earlier than females. Both sexes fly at night and at high altitudes; a plane collided with a Golden-Crowned Sparrow at 9,000 feet, and some migrating birds have been found on Mt. Shasta and Mt. Rainier above 12,000 feet.

These sparrows are omnivorous, eating seeds, buds and similar vegetable matter as well as any available insect protein, but vegetable matter heavily predominates in winter. Like the White-crowned, it forages mostly on the ground.

You can hear parts of this sparrows’ song on the short video above. It consists of three descending notes that human ears register as sad. Alaskan miners heard “No gold here,” or “Oh dear me,” and “I’m so weary.” Apparently the males do the singing, although the research is light.

Once they’re here, they’re very likely to stay for the winter season, and will likely move within a range of about 300 yards. But will they come back next year and after? One study in Berkeley in 1933 found a return rate of 15 percent the first year, 4 percent the year after, with more recent studies finding higher but still small return rates, in the range of about 20 percent.

Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)

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