By Mary Nelesen

I have been watching daily for the return of the White-crowned Sparrows that frequent our yard each spring. They typically spend several days hopping and scratching on the ground below the bird feeders to expose insects and seeds to feed on before heading to higher elevations to breed.

This handsome sparrow nests or winters over much of the continent but is most abundant in the West. It is easily identified by its high puffy crown marked with bold black and white head stripes, and by its orange-pink bill, gray face, gray under parts, streaked brown back with two white wing bars. It is similar to the White-throated Sparrow which also has black and white head stripes, but unlike the White-crowned Sparrow, the White-throated Sparrow has yellow in front of and above the eye.

The White-crowned Sparrow can be found nesting on the ground in moss or grass, under shrubs or dwarf trees, or in small conifer, birch or willow trees, rarely above 30 feet up in a tree. The nest is built by the female and is a bulky cup of twigs, grasses, weeds and lined with fine grasses, hairs of deer and other animals. The finished nest is 5 inches across and 2 inches deep, and takes the female 2-9 days to complete. The male White-crowned Sparrow does not perform courtship feeding, but rather waits until the female initiates courtship. These birds are almost always monogamous.

The nesting period is between April and August with 3-5 pale blue or green eggs with brown or reddish spots. The female incubates the eggs. Incubation lasts about 12 days, throughout which the female is responsible for turning the eggs, as well as leaving during the day to forage for herself. The male contributes to feeding the young once they have hatched for up to 5 days; then his contribution begins to decrease. Most young fledge by the tenth day and reach adult weight by day 30–35. Young birds move very little for the first few days after they leave the nest and don’t typically learn to fly until a week or so later.

According to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a young male White-crowned Sparrow learns the basics of the song it will sing as an adult during the first two or three months of life. He learns from the song environment of his neighborhood rather than directly from his father. Males on the edge of two dialects may be bilingual and able to sing both dialects. Their song is a mix of bright whistles, slurs and churring trills. They will share their territories with Fox Sparrows, but chase Chipping Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos until they leave.

In Flathead Valley, White-crowned Sparrows sing on the Danny On trail and nest near the summit of Big Mountain. I like to imagine that the White-crowned Sparrows foraging under my feeders are headed for a breeding site somewhere near Logan Pass…one of the most beautiful spots in Glacier National Park. I will be on the lookout for them this summer as I hike along those high alpine meadows.