White-crowned Sparrow

October 28th, 2019: Another great morning at Queen Elizabeth Park

Fall colours are still everywhere here. And with them, plenty of migrating flocks coming through. It’s exciting to see big thrush numbers overhead now. Plus, a steady inflow of fowl (otherwise known as an “infowl”).

A pair of Mallard drift by in front of changing leaves on the eastern pond at QE
A pair of Mallard drift by in front of changing leaves on the eastern pond at QE

So I headed out to QE Park again today. Not looking for anything in particular. Just, you know, getting outside with the birds.

Fall colours at QE Park
Fall colours at QE Park

Some of the morning’s highlights were Red-breasted Sapsucker, and a few Varied Thrush and Hermit Thrush. Lots of the little guys too. Especially Golden-crowned Kinglet and Pacific Wren.

Fall colours in QE Park's rehabilitated quarry
Fall colours in QE Park’s rehabilitated quarry

I spent a while with some patient Varied Thrush in a firework of a tree. I tried in vain to maneuver myself into a place where I could get clear photos, but the thrushes weren’t having it. Still, I enjoyed soaking up the almost gaudy clash of the Varied Thrushes’ bright orange-black with the bright reds and yellows of the surrounding leaves.

A Varied Thrush enjoys berries for lunch
A Varied Thrush enjoys berries for lunch

Only a small number of sparrows today though. And a White-crowned Sparrow caught my eye. To be sure, these guys are very common here. In fact, for me at least, they’re really THE herald of spring. I hear their song on my walk across UBC campus to work every morning once spring’s here: that soaring loooooowww hiiiiiiigh and the almost metallic warble downward after.

White-crowned Sparrow at Grant Narrows
White-crowned Sparrow at Grant Narrows

They’re not doing that now of course. Just chipping and feeding along the ground as usual. These sparrows will eat almost anything, depending on the season. Mostly they munch of seeds of various grasses, but they’re perfectly happy with grains or small berries (like blackberries and elderberries). In the summer, they’ll also eat lots of insects like caterpillars, wasps, and beetles.

White-crowned Sparrow at Kitsilano Beach
White-crowned Sparrow at Kitsilano Beach

It wasn’t particularly birdy today. But QE is truly stunning right now.

Stunning colours at QE's eastern pond
Stunning colours at QE’s eastern pond

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Yes! The White-crowned Sparrow’s spring song is something I strongly associate with Vancouver! And unlike other PNW birds whose song I recognize, its song seems to vary quite a bit by location. For example, I’m pretty sure I heard one in Bellingham but it was pretty different from the ones I heard in Vancouver. Does that seem accurate?

    1. Awesome question Rory! Your memory must be good. It’s very possible for it to have been singing a different song. First, of course there’s individual variation, but what you’re describing sounds beyond that. There are 5 subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow in North America. The three we have out west (generally) are the Pacific group (nuttallii), Western Taiga (gambellii), and Interior West (oriantha). There are differences in appearance as well as song (in some cases). I won’t go on and on–and I’d need to read more if I really wanted to anyway–and instead I’ll point you to a couple of sources you might find interesting. First, check out http://www.xeno-canto.org which is a massive crowd-sourced database of bird vocalizations. In there you can search for White-crowned Sparrow, look for songs specifically (unless you’re interested in calls too), and then look at specific subspecies. The subspecies are not always listed, but you’ll see it included with the Latin on the left. Second, you might visit here: https://www.sibleyguides.com/bird-info/white-crowned-sparrow/ In their description of subspecies variation, they offer the following under the “Voice” subheading: “Song – Dunn et al (1995) describe Western Taiga/Eastern song as ‘lazier, wheezier, and more wavering than Pacific’ and note that the songs of northern birds ‘generally lack clear trills, paired whistles, and sprightly patterning.’ Pacific birds ‘tend to have a more sprightly and patterned song that usually incorporates one or more rather clear introductory whistles and a pair or more of rapidly-delivered slurred whistles or short trills at or near the end.’ Interior West birds sing clear songs more suggestive of Pacific, although some (e.g. in OR) sound more like Western Taiga.”
      Apologies if this is an overload. You’ve reminded me I need to be paying more attention to these guys too! Especially when I’m down in OR! =)

  2. Wow! xeno-canto is awesome. The one recording in Vancouver is just how I remembered it but it doesn’t specify the subspecies. I listened to recordings made in other regions and those songs are different. How cool that they save this song until spring! I just assumed they didn’t show up until spring but I realize from your post that they are around–just not singing!

    1. Isn’t it great!?
      We definitely get an additional influx in the spring, but yeah, most of the singing is done in the spring: you gotta impress the ladies!

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