Our Most Elegant Sparrow

By Doug Pifer

Every year I look forward to when the white-crowned sparrows come back. They show up around the middle of October and hang around until the early dandelion flowers bloom in the spring.

Mention sparrow and most people imagine a brown, nondescript bird. But a white-crowned sparrow is nothing like that. About the size of a common house sparrow, its outline is much more refined. The back and wings are striped purplish brown and ashy gray to match the winter twigs. Its underside is clean gray fading to frosty tan like the horizon of a snowy sky. Seen up close, the pink bill and feet add a touch of winter sunset color.

But the most dramatic thing is the “crown” on its head. Striped boldly black and white, it looks as if the bird were wearing a bicycle helmet. As the bird perches among the brown weeds or grasses, the white stripes pop out with an almost incandescent glow. And the black is a lush and velvety color.

When the bird raises and lowers its head feathers, it completely changes its outline, adding to its distinctive character and heightening the contrast between the stripes. Like many birds, white-crowned sparrows are shy and retiring in their habits, but the flamboyance of their markings gives them panache.

You’ll likely get white-crowned sparrows at your bird feeder if you allow the dead flowers, herbs, and vegetable plants to stand in your garden all winter.

Even if you don’t feed the birds, if you let shrubbery like boxwood or privet grow tall and untrimmed, you have good winter habitat for white-crowned sparrows.

The first year of their lives, white-crowned sparrows have brown-striped heads, but can still be recognized by the shape of their high-peaked head feathers and their elegant proportions.

When we first moved into this house, we noticed the white-crowned sparrows in the spring as the dandelions came into bloom. Along with the goldfinches, they sought out the spent flowers just before the rounded heads stood up to release their parachuted seeds into the wind. They hung around just long enough for us to hear their spring songs. It sounded as if they were asking a question like, “More wet weather cheezie?”

Since we have planted the yard with clumps of shrubs, the white-crowned sparrows stay around all winter. But they derailed my gardening plans a little bit last year.

Each spring I sow lettuce seed mix in container gardens outside the kitchen window for our spring salads. I cover the containers with domes I make out of woven fencing wire to stop the cat from digging in them. Every morning as we had our coffee we could look out and see several adult and immature white-crowns scratching and pecking the fresh soil under the fencing. I think I had to re-sow my lettuce beds at least three times last spring before any seeds sprouted.

By the time we picked our first spring salad, all the white-crowns had gone to nest among the short trees along the timberline, where their breezy evening songs would serenade summer backpackers and mountain hikers.