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Golden-Crowned Sparrow: Field Guide, Pictures, Habitat & Info

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Golden Crowned Sparrow in the snow

As it’s easy to spot during winter along the West coast of North America, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is one of the 50+ sparrow species found in this part of the world. However, the opposite is true in summer, as the fascinating birds tend to disappear into shrub lands throughout Alaska and British Columbia.

Conservationists haven’t studied the Golden-crowned Sparrow extensively compared to many other sparrow species. Thus, less is known about its habits and traits. An interesting fact about the Golden-crowned Sparrow is that miners were once comforted by their songs during California’s gold rush. Also, they tend to arrive in California earlier and leave later than most other migratory birds.

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Quick Facts About the Golden Crowned Sparrow

golden crowned sparrow Close up
Image Credit: Stas Volik, Shutterstock
Habitat Scrubland, dry tundra
Diet Insects, seeds, fruits
Behavior Ground forager
Nesting Ground nester
Conservation Low concern (LC)
Scientific name Zonotrichia atricapilla
Lifespan: 6 to 8 years

Golden-Crowned Sparrow General Description

While it looks mostly like a house sparrow, the one trait that sets the Golden-crowned Sparrow apart (as you might have guessed from its name) is the golden streak on the top of its head. However, it’s more yellow than gold. Golden-crowned Sparrows are large for a sparrow, about 50% larger than most other sparrow species. They have large, jet-black eyes set halfway in black head feathers on each side of their head. The black and yellow together look a little like a baseball cap. Golden-crowned Sparrows have a whitish-tan underbelly and tan flight feathers with black streaks. They also have a relatively long tail and long legs and toes.

Directly under their black and yellow crown, their feathers are white and light gray around the bottom of their face and neck. Their beaks are usually gray but turn a pale orange during mating season. There is little sexual dimorphism among Golden-crowned Sparrows, although female colors, not surprisingly, are duller than the male.

Golden Crowned Sparrow
Image By: Agami Photo Agency, Shutterstock

Golden-Crowned Sparrow: Range, Habitat, Behavior, Diet & Nesting


While not vast, the Golden-crowned Sparrows range covers most of North America’s western coast. That includes the Baja Peninsula as far north as the western tip of Alaska and British Columbia. They spend summer in their Alaskan and Canadian breeding grounds and make their way down to California as winter sets in.


In both their winter and summer locations, you’ll find the Golden-crowned Sparrow very close to the West coast. They like to be near moving water like streams and rivers and tend to use the scrubby brush, low conifer trees, and thickets to hide, mate, and raise their young. They will sometimes (but not often) come to backyards with plenty of bushes and short conifer trees.

Golden-crowned Sparrow
Image By: Nick Pecker, Shutterstock


Golden-crowned Sparrows are primarily monogamous, although there have been reports of males having more than one mate at a time. The birds spend much of their time on the ground foraging for food and like to hang out in lower branches of trees when they aren’t. They don’t make long flights when not migrating but stay close to their nesting area. If frightened, Golden-crowned Sparrows will run and hide in thickets and bushes.Diet

The Golden-crowned Sparrow is more of an omnivore than other sparrow species, eating whatever is available. Insects are a big part of their diet, including ants, beetles, butterflies, and even bees. They also love many types of seeds and grains and won’t pass up ripe fruit when available. Golden-crowned Sparrows forage in pairs and sometimes in small groups of mixed bird species.Nesting

As ground nesters, the Golden-crowned Sparrow protects their nests by hiding them under low-hanging branches of several tree species, especially birch and willow trees. The female gathers material to build their nest, which is similar to the house sparrow’s nest in that it’s cup-like and made from various materials.

Golden-crowned Sparrows have one or two broods a season with three to five eggs each. Their eggs incubate for a little under 2 weeks, and their nestlings are ready to leave in another 2 weeks.

How to Find the Golden-Crowned Sparrow: Birdwatching Tips

What to Listen For

We mentioned earlier that gold rush miners in California were comforted by the song of the Golden-crowned Sparrow. With a series of clear whistles, many have likened the Golden-crowned Sparrow’s song to the phrase,” oh, dear me!”  Some say it sounds rather bleak, as if the bird is upset or sad. They also have several calls that sound like “chip,” “chup,” and also “peer.”

Golden-crowned Sparrow resting
Image By: 2009fotofriends, Shutterstock

What to Look For

Golden-crowned Sparrows are bigger than most sparrows. If you see a big bird that looks like a sparrow, it might be a Golden-crowned Sparrow. Of course, the dead giveaway is the yellow streak against black that makes their “crown.”

Spotting them in summer is difficult because they are far out in the wilderness. In winter, you will usually see the Golden-crowned Sparrow in brushland near the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California.

When to Look

The best time to spot the Golden-crowned Sparrow is in summer when they arrive on the West Coast of the United States, usually in early April. They stay until late September, giving you plenty of time to go out and spot this attractive but elusive sparrow. They are active most of the day but more active in the morning and late afternoon.

Attracting Golden-Crowned Sparrows to Your Backyard: Tips & Tricks

There are several methods you can use to attract Golden-crowned Sparrows to your backyard, although if you live in Alaska or British Columbia, it might be more difficult as they don’t tend to live near humans. On the West coast of the US, though, you can use the following methods to bring the Golden-crowned Sparrow to your yard:

Use Ground Feeders

The Golden-crowned Sparrow stays close to the ground for everything it does, so a ground feeder is best to bring them to your yard. The typical bird seed will work just fine, as well as small fruits like cherries, berries, and orange slices.

Golden-crowned Sparrows
Image Credit: 2009fotofriends, Shutterstock

Plant a Garden with Fruits and Veggies

If you don’t mind, Golden-crowned Sparrows will gladly come and eat the flowers from your garden plants. They also have a weakness for peas and beets and will make a nice snack out of your cabbage and lettuce.

Spread Seeds and Grains on the Ground

Being ground feeders, one of the easiest ways to attract Golden-crowned Sparrows is to simply throw some of their favorite seeds and grains in your yard. Golden-crowned Sparrows like black oil and hulled sunflower seeds, cracked corn, millet, peanut hearts, and safflower.

Grow Bushes, Shrubs, and Small Conifer Trees in your Yard

Golden-crowned Sparrows like to stay hidden in shrubby, bushy areas. Planting different shrubs and bushes with low ground clearance is a good way to attract them and give them the type of shelter they prefer. It does, however, make them harder to see.

Golden-crowned Sparrow restings
Image Credit: 2009fotofriends, Shutterstock

Golden-Crowned Sparrow Conservation: Is this Bird Threatened?

Although humans are encroaching on their natural habitat, the Golden-crowned Sparrow is classified as “low concern” (LC). Indeed, the Golden-crowned Sparrows’ population wintering along North America’s coast seems to be rising.

Their numbers aren’t well-known as the species has been scarcely studied. Also, since they have a remote breeding site with few humans around, the impact of human population growth has been less than other species have experienced.

It’s estimated that the Golden-crowned Sparrows’ total population is nearly 8 million birds. That gives them a score of 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. In short, at least for now, the Golden-crowned Sparrow population appears to be stable and safe.  

hummingbird divider Summing Up

Although they haven’t been studied extensively, Golden-crowned Sparrows are similar in many ways to their sparrow cousins. They forage on the ground, are primarily monogamous, and eat a wide variety of foods. They aren’t as willing to get together in large flocks as some sparrows and tend to hide a lot.

That makes it difficult to spot them in the wild or attract them to your backyard. Golden-crowned Sparrows also have a relatively limited range and habitat and don’t tend to make their nests near humans. However, their song is soothing and sad, making it one of the best ways to identify them.

We hope you enjoyed the information we’ve presented today and that all of your questions about the Golden-crowned Sparrow have been answered. They are interesting birds, and hearing their song is a treat. Best of luck spotting Golden-crowned Sparrows next time you’re out birdwatching!

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Featured Image Credit: Mark Heatherington, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.