With a white, striped crown, this bird delivers on its name. However, with black stripes on its crown as well, the question arises whether this bird should be named the black-crowned sparrow. Nonetheless, the white-crowned sparrow can be easily identified by its white crown, its long tail, and its orange to pinkish bill.
A common migrant bird, white-crowned sparrows typically move through southern Wisconsin in early spring and late fall. Birds moving through now will occasionally overwinter in far southern Wisconsin, but are more common south into Illinois. During migration, the white-crowned sparrow can be found in a variety of habitats; in fencerows, shrub thickets, along field margins, and at backyard feeders. Breeding grounds are located in northern Canada, and include high alpine meadows, tundra, and shrubby openings.
During migration, the white-crowned sparrow has a number of adaptations that allow it to survive these flights, which in Alaskan birds can result in a 2,600 mile flight. White-crowned sparrows participate in hyperphagia—eating more than needed to maintain weight—and can put on as much as 20% of their body weight per day. This feeding will typically last one to two weeks. A 200-pound person putting on twenty percent of his or her body weight per day would end up at 600 pounds after one week!
Imagine eating that much and then running cross-country. You can envision all those calories upsetting your stomach as you run, right? Well, the white-crowned sparrow combats this through its feeding times. Before migration, while the bird is bulking up, it feeds at dawn and dusk. However, during migration the bird will feed throughout the day, stopping in late afternoon, which clears its gut and helps reduce any excess weight for overnight flights.
You can see white-crowned sparrows right now in many of the habitats around Faville Grove Sanctuary. Just remember, as you see these birds, that they are participating in an intricate song and dance of eating just the right fuel for their migration. Stopover sites such as Faville Grove provide abundant seeds and insects which the white-crowned sparrows will fill up on before they head further south; hopefully getting their fill by mid-afternoon so they don't have full guts!
Written by Drew Harry, Faville Grove Sanctuary land steward
Cover photo by Kelly Colgan Azar