Magnificent Zonotrichia-American Sparrow Species

In the spring, noticeable small “sparrows” appear on forest paths in the green belt of Ottawa. They often stay on the ground among the grass, collecting seeds of cereals and small weeds. Their modest variegated striped brownish coloration resembles sparrows. However, these passerines have only external similarities to real sparrows. For a long time, they belonged to Emberizidae (bunting) Family, and only recently they, together with other American sparrows, were singled out into a new family, which is called the Passerellidae or New World Sparrows. Five representatives of this vast family belong to the genus Zonotrichia or American sparrows. All birds from this genus have brown backs with black stripes and streaks and heads with distinctive markings – white, yellow, or black. Four of five species are North American dwellers and one – the rufous-collared sparrow – inhabits highlands from southeast of Mexico to Tierra del Fuego in the extreme south of South America.

White-throated Sparrow during migration in Ottawa area

The white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is a Canadian patriot. If you enter the forest and hear whistles coming from the tree crowns resembling melodic and solemn “Oh! Canada! Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada“, then know that the singer lurking in the branches is a white-throated sparrow. This bird is widespread in the forest zone of North America. Small portion of the species population nests in the northeastern part of the United States, but nevertheless, the main breeding range of this sparrow covers the boreal forests of Canada. Some pairs of white-throated sparrows stay for nesting in Ottawa’s Greenbelt, but most of the birds fly for breeding to the north in boreal and taiga regions. For example, in Algonquin Park, the white-throated sparrow is one of the most abundant passerine birds. Its songs pour from almost every corner of the forest in the quiet morning from late spring to mid-summer. This sparrow begins to sing first at dawn – even before sunrise. On migration, the white-throated sparrow is also very widely distributed. It loves to visit bird feeders in green areas around towns and cities. And for the winter, most part white-throated sparrows migrate to the United States, where wintering birds can be seen even in Central Park in New York. More information about this bird you will find on pages of the Cornell Lab “All about birds”.

The white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) is a bird that breeds in the northern latitudes of North America – in the northern boreal forests, taiga, and forested tundra of Canada and Alaska. This sparrow inhabits shrub thickets and other bushy areas. In the migration season, the white-crowned sparrows may be observed in temperate zones of North America. They are often observed along trails, on grassy lawns, and in meadows in the green areas in mid-latitudes, where they collect small seeds of weeds and cereals, as well as small insects and other invertebrates. However, even during migration, they prefer to stay close to forests and can be spotted in many provincial parks of Ontario. In autumn, this sparrow does not appear early; it is a late migrant, which passage takes place in October. It migrates for wintering to the southern United States, sometimes reaching Mexico and Central America. Back migration in Southern Ontario takes place in early-mid May. At this time, white-crowned sparrows sometimes combine with white-throated, which also return to their breeding areas. Their joint flocks of both species can be seen feeding in dandelion meadows, under bird feeders on forest paths, and near houses. Near Ottawa, the first white-crowned sparrows appear at the end of April, and at the end of May, they already fly further north. The presence of white-crowned sparrows in the forest also gives out a characteristic melodic song. Males of this sparrow learn the songs in the places where they grow up (All about birds), they usually come back for breeding in the same places and therefore they have diverse local dialects of song and need to learn several dialects when living at the edge of the population range.

While hiking in one of the parks in Vancouver, my attention was attracted by small birds, which resembled females of the white-crowned sparrows, both in appearance and in behavior. But looking closer, I noticed “golden” caps – yellow spots in the center of the head and wide black “eyebrows” attaching from both sides to the yellow caps. These birds were immediately identified as the golden-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia atricapilla), which inhabit the taiga forests in the uplands of the western edge of North America. The breeding grounds of these sparrows are stretched from northern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands to the central regions of the Yukon province in Canada. In fall, golden-crowned sparrows migrate along the Pacific Coast to the south of British Columbia, western United States reaching on wintering southern California. The white-crowned sparrow inhabits dense shrubs and other brushy areas. These sparrows are often found in many parks of Vancouver, where they, like other species of this genus, gather to feed under bird feeders. Just like their relatives, golden-crowned sparrows prefer to feed on the ground, collecting small seeds of cereals and other plants. Song mnemonics of this species are described in “Dendroica” as whistles “Oh! Deer me” or “ Teeeewwww twee twee”. Although miners from the Yukon hear their song as “No gold here” (All about birds). This species is also known for its vagrant behavior: individual birds during periods of seasonal migrations reach the Far East in Russia and Japan. Also, a small number of sparrows sometimes roam along the eastern coasts of North America, where they are observed from Nova Scotia to Florida.

My daughter and I were walking with heavy backpacks through the streets of the town of Banos in the province of Tungurahua in Ecuador. The town is adjacent to the northern foot of the active volcano Tungurahua in the Andes at an altitude of about 1800 m above sea level. Several “sparrows” with a melodious voice were jumping along the narrow streets of the town. We could see them only when we reached the hotel and dropped our backpacks. The remarkable features of the external appearance made it possible to quickly identify the species. These were the rufous-collared or “Andean” sparrows (Zonotrichia capensis) – a species that inhabit South America. This sparrow is distributed from Mexico in North America to the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on the southern tip of the continent. In July, when we voyaged and had a chance to observe these birds, rufous-collared sparrows roamed. They begin to nest in the Andes in December-January. Traveling in summer, we saw rufous-collared sparrows only in mountainous areas. Small flocks of sparrows were found both in their natural environment and in the vicinity of human habitation. However, they were most abundant in the streets of small mountain settlements. Like their northern relatives, the rufous-collared sparrows justify their recognition as the “plantain finches”, vigorously looking for food – seeds of plants and invertebrates – along the roadsides and among the grass on the meadows of mountain slopes. Their energetic song is reminiscent of the voices of their articulated fellows from North America.

Harris’s sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) is the largest species among Zonotrichia genus. The breeding habitats of this species are known in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, therefore, it is the only endemic breeding bird in Canada. Harris’s sparrow occurs in low-growing, stunted coniferous forests with adjoining shrubs in the forest-tundra regions. Because of its remote breeding areas, the first nest of Harris’s sparrow was found only in 1931 in Churchill, Manitoba by George M. Sutton (All about birds). This species overwinters in the United States, flying south in October over the prairies and mountainous regions of central Canada. They usually return back at the end of April-May, preferring to travel across the mountainous valleys to flying among the open prairies. Perhaps, the mountains allow better orientation in space and facilitate the return back to the beginning of the breeding season. In the nesting places, Harris’s sparrows feed on the ground, eating small berries, buds, and flowers, as well as small invertebrates. During migration and wintering, they also feed on the ground, collecting the seeds of herbaceous plants. The species can be recognized by its vivid whistling song. Harris’s sparrow is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN due to declining population that could be associated with climate change impact on the restricted habitats of this species.

One day in October I saw this species near one of the trails in the Ottawa Greenbelt. It was a bright adult male, but while I was preparing the camera, the sparrow disappeared and I could not take a photo of this species. It could be an individual that accidentally drifted from his usual route. Without documentation, I did not even include the species in the list of birds observed that day online in ebird.

It is the time now when two of the five listed species have already appeared in the Ottawa Greenbelt and around other settlements and parks of southern Ontario. This is a wonderful time for bird watching and wildlife photography. Have you been lucky enough to observe the “Zonotrichia” species during your hikes and travels?

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