Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia atricapilla

  • Version: 2.0 — Published January 1, 1998
  • C. J. Norment, Paul Hendricks, and R. Santonocito

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Figure 1. Distribution of the Golden-crowned Sparrow.
Golden-crowned Sparrow, adult, breeding plumage.

Nome, Alaska.; photographer Jeffrey Rich

Around the turn of the twentieth century, miners of the Klondike and elsewhere in the Yukon Territory, British Columbia, and Alaska knew the Golden-crowned Sparrow as "Weary Willie" because it was forever singing, "I'm so tired!" (Burroughs et al. 1986). Others called it the "No Gold Here" bird, and disliked it because it repeatedly sang this unpleasant, but often correct, phrase. Perhaps the bleak outlook of the miners, coupled with the remote, often wet, windy, and cold habitats near tree line, influenced impressions of this handsome sparrow; apparently miners had little motivation to document the home life of their avian neighbor.

As one of the more abundant winter birds in shrublands and urban margins of California and Oregon valleys, the Golden-crowned Sparrow quickly gained a reputation for destructiveness in the early twentieth century because of its propensity for flocking and for feeding on vegetables and flowers in gardens and cultivated fields. In recent decades, numbers of wintering individuals appear to be on the increase, and winter diet seems generally unchanged, but the Golden-crowned Sparrow is no longer listed as a pest species.

Despite early interest in the agricultural impacts of this species, and the penetration of civilization into its breeding grounds, the Golden-crowned Sparrow remains one of our more poorly known native passerines.

Several laboratory studies have described physiological mechanisms controlling its migration (Morton and Mewaldt 1962, King and Farner 1963, Farner and Lewis 1971, Turek 1975), but only one brief published field study from Alaska (Hendricks 1987a) describes the reproductive biology of this species. Winter foraging ecology and behavior have been the subject of field studies in California and Oregon (Davis 1973b, Pearson 1979, Dewoskin 1980), but summer foraging ecology and diet are almost unknown. Thus, knowledge of the life history of this species, especially on its breeding grounds, is constructed largely from scattered notes in journals or brief accounts in volumes describing faunal surveys of British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and Alaska. Current ignorance about the Golden-crowned Sparrow is surprising, given the number of laboratory and field investigations of other Zonotrichia sparrows; the species offers excellent possibilities for comparative studies, since it is often sympatric year-round with races of the congeneric White-crowned Sparrow (Z. leucophrys). The lack of field studies, especially on the breeding grounds of this species, allows few other generalizations.

Recommended Citation

Norment, C. J., P. Hendricks, and R. Santonocito (1998). Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.