Fall Sparrow Migration

October 24, 2023

As the seasons cycle through the Willits Little Lake Valley, it is time once again for the return of several species of sparrows that are only here in the fall and winter months. The White and Golden-crowned Sparrows have arrived in large numbers, along with Lincoln’s, Savannah, and Fox Sparrows. The Song Sparrow is one of our year-round resident sparrows, plentiful in Little Lake Valley and singing throughout all the seasons. Last year I wrote a blog on the two crowned sparrows, and I would like to talk a little more about them plus one other species of migrant sparrow.

The White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, is a resident of the coast year-round. Some spend the summer in the mountains and further north but come to our area in the fall and winter. Its song is common in Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and other coastal areas. When it arrives here in the fall singing its lovely whistling notes, I am transported to the coast (having lived there for four years)! As I listen to this song, I think about how this bird species is one of the most studied in all of animal behavior. Different subspecies of the White-crowned Sparrow sing uniquely different songs, which allows scientists to recognize the individual subspecies and even tell where they have migrated from. White-crowned Sparrows that breed in Alaska and Arctic Canada spend the winter over much of the continental U.S. and Mexico. Birds along the Pacific Coast and parts of the interior do not migrate north and south. Rather, they migrate to the inland valleys not far from where they nest. So, this time of the year we have a mix of sparrows, those that have just come from the coast or mountains, and others who came down from the far north regions. This time of the year the diet of the White-crowned Sparrows is varied, and it includes buds, flowers, newly sprouted shoots, and berries. In the spring and summer at their nesting sites, the adults feed their young mostly insects, caterpillars, and spiders.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla, is a large, long-tailed sparrow with easy-to-recognize adult summer plumage. It has striking black head stripes surrounding a yellow-gold crown patch. A characteristic that distinguishes them from White-crowned Sparrows is a bill that is mostly dark compared to the pink or yellow White-crowned bill. They breed in shrubby tundra habitats near the coast or in the mountains of Alaska and NorthwestCanada where they live amongst willows, short conifers, and alders. Golden-crowned Sparrows tend to breed near moving or standing water. During migration, in the fall and winter, these sparrows spend time in chaparral, brush, riparian thickets, and gardens. These wintering grounds are what we have here, so keep a lookout for one at your bird feeder or in your driveway. Golden-crowned Sparrows overwinter from Southern British Columbia to Northern Baja California, mostly west of the Cascades and Sierra Nevada. They have also been observed all the way on the eastern edge of the continent.

The Golden-crowned Sparrow diet includes more seeds than the White-crowns, seeds from plants like pigweed Dock, bromegrass, nightshade, and knotweed. They also like fruits and grains such as apples, grapes, elderberries, oats, and barley. The arrival of the crowned sparrows in the fall and winter is timed perfectly each year for when I decide to put in a fall and winter garden. If the seedlings are not protected, each one will get snipped off by these hungry migrants. Their diet also includes ants, wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, beetles, craneflies, and termites.

The third and last fall and winter migrant sparrow I will talk about is one of my favorite sparrows, the Lincoln’s Sparrow, Melospiza lincolnii. This elegant, smallish sparrow is a master of concealment in the grasslands and shrubby meadow edges it inhabits during the fall and winter months in Little Lake Valley. When it pops up on top of a bush or fence post, Cornell’s All About Birds website describes it as “a bird that looks like it is wearing a finely tailored suit with a buffy moustachial stripe and delicate streaking down its buffy chest and sides.” It also has a buffy eye ring which can be hard to see. The Lincoln’s Sparrow has less geographical variation in song than the other species in its genus. This includes Song Sparrows and Swamp Sparrows, but we rarely get to hear them singing because they do not breed here. Lincoln’s Sparrows nest in montane meadows in the mountainous regions of the Western U.S., Alaska, and Canada. I have heard them singing in Plaskett Meadows in the Mendocino National Forest in early June. Their song is wren-like and caught my attention right away! Lincoln’s Sparrows run along the ground in the grasses using little pathways likely created by rodents as they search for insects such as caterpillars, moths, leafhoppers, and aphids that make up most of their diet. They will also eat small seeds and are occasionally seen at feeders.

This week the sparrows are out everywhere calling and even singing (Song, Golden-crowned, and White-crowned). If you have bird feeders watch out for them and listen for their songs.