White-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys (left) and golden-crowned sparrow, Zonotrichia atricapilla (Right)

Jerry P. Clark
Primary Staff Biologist
California Department of Food and Agriculture
Sacramento, California 95814

Scott E. Hygnstrom
Extension Wildlife Damage Specialist
Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska 68583-0974


White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys, Fig. 1) are distinguished by their pink or yellowish bill, erect posture, gray throat and breast, and prominent crown streaked with black and white. Geographic races, including the mountain (Z. l. oriantha), Gambel’s (Z. l. gambelii), Nuttall’s (Z. L. nuttalli), and Puget Sound white-crowned sparrow (Z. l. pugetensis) show minor differences in head pattern, bill color, and song. Their songs vary geographically, but consist primarily of clear whistles. Golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla, Fig. 1) are similar in appearance to white-crowned sparrows with the exception that they have no white head stripes. Instead, adults have a dull golden-yellow central crown stripe that is heavily bordered with black. Immatures look like female house sparrows, but are larger, darker, have longer tails, and usually have a yellowish crown. Their song consists of three to five clear whistles that descend in scale. They are less numerous and cause fewer problems than white-crowned sparrows. 


White-crowned sparrows are abundant in the western United States. They breed primarily in Alaska and Canada and winter in the western and southern United States and Mexico. Breeding and wintering ranges overlap in California, Oregon, Washington, and other western states. Gambel’s, the most important, race, breeds in Alaska and western Canada but winters in the interior valleys of California and from San Francisco Bay southward. 

Golden-crowned sparrows breed along the coast from Alaska to northern Washington and winter west of the Cascades and in the Sierra Nevada to Baja California. They migrate south to California in October and stay until April.  


White-crowned sparrows are birds of the chaparral, brushy river bottoms, brush piles, rubbish heaps, dense weed fields, and fence rows. They commonly winter in dense hedges and thick plantings of shrubbery found near towns and suburbs. Golden-crowned sparrows commonly winter in boreal scrub and spruce.  

Food Habits

Food of white-crowned sparrows averages 75% plant and 25% animal matter. Most of the animal food is taken during the breeding season. During the winter months whitecrowned sparrows feed primarily on seeds. The diet of golden-crowned sparrows is thought to be similar. 

General Biology

Gambel’s white-crowned sparrows appear in California valleys in September and reach their maximum density during October, becoming injurious to crops in localized areas. They remain extremely abundant until March and gradually leave by May.  

Nests are built in bushes or on the ground among mosses sheltered by higher vegetation. White-crowned and golden-crowned sparrows lay 3 to 5 eggs. One brood is raised per year. Incubation takes 12 days, with age at first flight commonly 10 days.  

Damage and Damage


Scott E. Hygnstrom; Robert M. Timm; Gary E. Larson

Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage Logo 1994


Cooperative Extension Division Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources University of Nebraska -Lincoln

United States Department of Agriculture Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Animal Damage Control

Great Plains Agricultural Council Wildlife Committee

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