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Sutro Bird Watcher: Golden-Crowned Sparrow

Grab your binoculars!

Traveling in small groups, a migrating species of sparrow, the Golden-crowned Sparrow, arrived in late September to its wintering grounds on Mt. Sutro.

The plumage of the Golden-crowned Sparrow in winter is not outstanding. When the Golden-crowned Sparrow arrives in late September, it looks like a large, brown sparrow to the naked eye. Even with binoculars, the markings include an assortment of browns and gray. The golden crown of the male is only an impression in autumn.

The gold coloring of the male’s crown slowly emerges through the winter as the feathers develop. In the springtime, the “golden crown” can be seen in its glory on the male bird. The crown is followed by a white stripe at the back of the head.

It is the behavior of these arriving birds that brings attention to its presence. These large sparrows appear in groups of three or more. They peer from the upper story of the chaparral, resting and looking for a passing insect to eat. In the shrubs and trees they are eating leaves, fruit and flowers. This sparrow will also be seen on the ground, hopping among the leaves and litter, eating seeds, during this time of year.

Ornithologists report that migrating Golden-crowned Sparrows return to familiar wintering grounds. Therefore, we can assume that individual birds on Mt. Sutro have been here before, or will visit here again. The success of populations of birds is linked to having reliable wintering grounds. Mt. Sutro does serve as the winter home for a cohort of migrating Golden-crowned Sparrows, it is safe to assume.

Witness the wintering of Golden-crowned Sparrows on Mt. Sutro as they feed in the chaparral and sing a downward three-part song “Oh Dear Me,” a song that is sometimes described as plaintive. This bird is known to sing when it first arrives at its wintering grounds, then to fall silent for months. Singing resumes soon before leaving for summer territories in western Canada and Alaska.

To recognize our Golden-crowned Sparrow’s metamorphosis from basic winter-drab coloring to breeding plumage requires the observer to be attentive. To recognize our Golden-crowned Sparrow with its unique behaviors and song, is to recognize the majesty of migration that includes Mt. Sutro, neighboring gardens and Pacific coast habitats.

Check out the link for more information, including identification, life history and sounds:

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