White-crowned Sparrow: An October Highlight

One of the migrating birds that I look forward to seeing each October in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park is White-crowned Sparrow. So far, I have not been disappointed. In each of the last 17 years it has been one of the species that I have observed in October, pausing here on the way south.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

It is a distinctive bird, with white and black stripes on the gray head and white markings on the dark wings. The breast is unstreaked. Females and males look alike as adults.

At this time of the year, they eat mostly seeds of flowers and grasses. In Eliza Howell, they are usually on the ground or on wildflowers or in the trees nearby.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

White-crowned Sparrows breed in the far north and winter to the south of Michigan. They pass through on their way to their breeding grounds in May, but they do not linger much. I have spotted them in May in 10 of 17 years.

In the fall, they do not seem to be in as much of a hurry. I see them some times in late September (5 of 17 years) and in early November (4 of 16 years). The October appearances can be at any time of the month

(The range map is from the Cornell Institute of Ornithology.)

When they show up in the fall, adult White-crowned Sparrows are accompanied by immature birds, this year’s hatchlings. The immatures are adult size, but have tan and brown head stripes instead of white and black. They keep this look until spring.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

October is the best time of the year to see a variety of sparrows in Detroit. I often see 10 different species during the month in the park — some summer residents that have not yet departed, some migrating through, and some winter residents just arriving.

Sparrow species are notorious for being difficult to distinguish. Once they become acquainted with the White-crowned Sparrow, however, most people find it (at least the adult) quite easy to recognize.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

There remain some October days and I am hopeful of getting a few more looks at a favorite migrating sparrow before saying farewell till next spring.

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