Zonotrichia leucophrys leucophrys, Z. l. gambelii, Z. l. oriantha
Status: Common regular spring and fall migrant west and west-central, fairly common elsewhere. Rare casual summer visitor statewide. Common regular winter visitor west, uncommon south and southeast, rare northeast, rare casual north.
Documentation: Specimens: gambelii, UNSM ZM7489, 19 Apr 1890 Crete, Saline Co; leucophrys, UNSM ZM7484, 3 May 1902 Lancaster Co; oriantha, UNSM ZM7494, 23 Jun 1916 Scotts Bluff Co.
Taxonomy: There are five subspecies (Pyle 1997): gambelii, breeding from Alaska to British Columbia to Northwest Territories and northern Manitoba, wintering to California and Texas, pugetensis, breeding in coastal British Columbia to northwest California, wintering coastal southwest California, nuttalli, resident coastal central California, oriantha, breeding in montane southwest Alberta to eastern California and northwest New Mexico, wintering to southern California and southwest Texas, and leucophrys, breeding from Ontario to Newfoundland, wintering from Kansas south to Texas and east to Maryland and Florida.
Some recent authors (Chilton et al 2020) synonymized black-lored leucophrys and oriantha, but most (Rising 1996; Gill and Donsker 2017, Clements et al 2016) retain the two subspecies. Although their breeding ranges do not overlap, they probably cannot be separated in the field, or even in the hand (Tony Leukering, post to COBIRDS 2006; Wright 2019).
Most Nebraska migrants and winter visitors are the pale-lored subspecies gambelii, which occurs statewide as a migrant, wintering primarily in the Panhandle. Two dark-lored subspecies, leucophrys and oriantha, occur in the state.
Based on breeding range, leucophrys (black lores, pinkish bill; Dunn et al 1995) would be expected in the east; Mark Brogie (personal communication) noted in the Creighton, Knox Co area black-lored birds are usually more common than pale-lored. In South Dakota gambelii and leucophrys occur in equal numbers in the extreme east while gambelii is more frequent elsewhere (Tallman et al 2002). Ludlow (1935) considered both subspecies common spring migrants in Webster Co, and Tout (1947) indicated that both occur in Lincoln Co, although gambelii was “the commoner”.
A complicating factor is the existence of a zone of intergradation between gambeli and leucophrys in northeastern Manitoba and eastward near Hudson Bay, where “intermediates … abound” (Chilton et al 2020); migrants associated with this zone may appear in Nebraska, presumably in the east. A possible intergrade was photographed in Lancaster Co 14 Oct 2021 (see photo).
Subspecies oriantha breeds in the Rocky Mountains, including the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming, and departs in fall (Faulkner 2010). On the northeastern plains of Colorado (away from Front Range locations) there are only 13 records of oriantha, eight in spring, 22 Mar-2 Jun, and five in fall, 8 Sep-22 Nov (eBird.org, accessed December 2021). Most of the few reports of oriantha or of dark-lored birds in the Panhandle fit this spring-fall migration pattern, although there are two summer records (see below). Two dark-lored birds were in Kimball Co 2 May 2004, four in Scotts Bluff and Kimball Cos 12-15 May 2020, one in Monroe Canyon 30 Sep 1920 (Dawson 1921), and an active Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co feeder operation has hosted dark-lored birds 22 Apr 2007, 4 Oct 2008, 23 Oct 2013 , and 22 Dec 2023 (Kathy DeLara, pers. comm.). “Dark-lored” sightings in the Panhandle in 2022 were reported 20 Sep-2 Oct, subspecies undetermined.
There are two Jun records of oriantha in western Nebraska, not far from the breeding range in Colorado and Wyoming: one was photographed at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 18 Jun 2010 (Cory Gregory, eBird.org), and a male specimen UNSM ZM 7494 was collected 23 Jun 1916 at Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co (Mickel and Dawson 1920). The latter has a very dark reddish-brown bill, is as pale on the flanks as any other specimen in the UNSM collection and has extensive black coloration in the loral area which extends to the gape. Another specimen, UNSM ZM 7483, is virtually identical to UNSM ZM 7494.
It was pointed out by Faulkner (2010) that dark-lored birds on the eastern plains of Wyoming in late fall and winter “might be” leucophrys, rather than oriantha; Tony Leukering (post to COBIRDS 2006) noted that in Colorado oriantha departs the state for the winter and thus it was likely that the 1-2 dark-lored birds that he sees on the eastern plains every winter are referable to leucophrys.
White-crowned Sparrow hybridizes occasionally with other Zonotrichia species, Golden-crowned, Harris’s, and White-throated Sparrows, although none are recorded for Nebraska. Nearest are two hybrids with Golden-crowned Sparrow for Colorado and one of a hybrid with White-throated Sparrow for Iowa (eBird.org, accessed Jul 2023).
Spring: winter<<<>>> May 31, Jun 1, 1
For later Jun dates, see Summer.
Early spring migration dates are difficult to determine because of the presence of wintering birds. There is a noticeable northward move into the southern Panhandle in May (eBird.org, accessed Feb 2021), and eBird bar charts show increased reports mid-Apr through mid-May. Tout (1947) gave migration dates in Lincoln Co 2 Apr-26 May.
- High counts: 275 at Lake McConaughy, Keith Co 29 Apr 1994, 219 in Hall Co 13 May 2006, 205 in Scotts Bluff Co 25 Apr 2022, and “hundreds” in Lincoln Co 30 Apr 2004.
Summer: There are a several reports from the summer months Jun-Jul, most from the northwest, but there is no evidence that this species has bred in Nebraska. It does not breed in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Tallman et al 2002) but does breed in the Laramie Mountains in eastern Wyoming (Faulkner 2010). Rosche (1982) listed White-crowned Sparrow only as a migrant in the northwest.
Jun-Jul records are 9 Jun 1919 Kimball Co (specimen, UNSM ZM7483), 9 Jun 2005 Scottsbluff, Scotts Bluff Co, 17 Jun Hastings, Adams Co (Swenk 1930), 18 Jun 2010 Garden Co, 23 Jun 1916 Scotts Bluff Co (specimen, possibly oriantha, UNSM ZM7494, Mickel and Dawson 1920), 24 Jun-1 Jul 1988 Dawes Co, and 25 Jun 2004 Hall Co.
Fall: Sep 3, 3, 4 <<<>>> winter
An earlier date is 30 Aug 2020 Kimball Co.
Migration is discernible by late Sep (eBird.org, accessed Feb 2021) with peak counts in late Sep and early Oct; Aug and early Sep reports are few. Tout (1947) gave migration dates in Lincoln Co 22 Sep-1 Nov. The last sighting in Lancaster Co in 2009 was 3 Nov and in 2011 14 Nov. Departure is difficult to determine as many birds linger into winter (see Winter).
- High counts: 255 along Road 44, southeastern Garden Co 2 Oct 2020, “hundreds” at Arnold Lake SRA, Custer Co 5 Oct 2004, 195 between Lakes Minatare and Alice, Scotts Bluff Co 7 Oct 2022, 185 at Oliver Reservoir, Kimball Co 27 Sep 2021, 160 at Crescent Lake NWR 28 Sep 1994, and 150 at Kilpatrick Lake, Box Butte Co 28 Sep 2012.
- 505 were tallied, including separate flocks of 170 and 145, between Lakes Minatare and Alice, Scotts Bluff Co 14 Oct 2021.
Winter: Most White-crowned Sparrows winter south of Nebraska, and so overwintering within the state is uncommon, except for the western North Platte River Valley. Winter reports are restricted to the west, south (Platte River Valley counties southward) and east. Wintering occurs regularly in the Scottsbluff area, where CBC counts are the highest for the state, including 446 in 2015 and 268 in 2016. CBC data since 1967 indicate that in Dec about 86% of birds reported were in the Panhandle, with almost all of the rest in the southeast. Rosche (1994) noted that in the northwest “there is always a marked decrease after long, severe cold spells after late January each year.”
In the north and northwest there are these midwinter (Jan-early Mar) reports: 1 Jan 1991 Sioux Co, an immature 2 Jan-6 Feb 2017 Knox Co, 5 Jan 1967 Custer Co, 5 Jan 2008 Albion, Boone Co, 12-13 Jan 1999 immature at Creighton, Knox Co, 15 Jan 1953 Dawes Co, 20 on 26 Jan 2008 Broken Bow, Custer Co, 3 Feb 1960 Antelope Co, 7-16 Feb 2015 2-4 at various locations in Custer Co, 11 Feb 1983 Boone Co, two on 14 Feb 2015 Box Butte Co, 9 Mar 1957 Brown Co, and 10 Mar 1985 Sioux Co.
- High counts: 61 at Benkelman, Dundy Co 19 Feb 2021, 50 in Nemaha Co 2 Jan 2023, 48 in a Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co yard, and 39 there 22 Feb 2018.
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
Chilton, G., M.C. Baker, C.D. Barrentine, and M.A. Cunningham. 2020. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.whcspa.01.
Clements, J. F., T. S. Schulenberg, M. J. Iliff, D. Roberson, T. A. Fredericks, B. L. Sullivan, and C. L. Wood. 2016. The eBird/Clements checklist of birds of the world: v2016, accessed 30 January 2018.
Dawson, R.W. 1921. Fall migration in northwestern Nebraska in 1920. Wilson Bulletin 33: 35-37.
Dunn, J.L., K.L. Garrett, and J.K. Alderfer. 1995. White-Crowned Sparrow subspecies: identification and distribution. Birding 27: 182-200.
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Rosche, R.C. 1994. Birds of the Lake McConaughy area and the North Platte River valley, Nebraska. Published by the author, Chadron, Nebraska, USA.
Swenk, M.H. 1930. The Crown Sparrows (Zonotrichia) of the Middle West. Wilson Bulletin 42: 80-95.
Tallman, D.A., Swanson, D.L., and J.S. Palmer. 2002. Birds of South Dakota. Midstates/Quality Quick Print, Aberdeen, South Dakota, USA.
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Tout, W. 1947. Lincoln County birds. Published by the author, North Platte, Nebraska, USA.
Wright, R. 2019. Sparrows of North America. Peterson Reference Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and New York.
Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2023. White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org
Birds of Nebraska – Online
Updated 21 Sep 2023