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 leucophrys and oriantha, but most (Rising 1996; Gill and Donsker 2017, Clements et al 2016) retain the two subspecies; although both have black lores, 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 ranges, 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”.

There are these documented records of oriantha for Nebraska: four dark-lored birds were reported from Scotts Bluff and Kimball Cos 12-15 May 2020, and one was photographed at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 18 Jun 2010. A specimen, UNSM ZM7494, cited above, is a male collected 23 Jun 1916 at Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co (Mickel and Dawson 1920), likely oriantha; it has a very dark reddish-brown bill, is as pale on the flanks as any other specimen in the 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.

Subspecies oriantha breeds in the Rocky Mountains, including the Laramie Mountains of Wyoming, and departs in fall (Faulkner 2010); birds identified as oriantha occurred on the northeastern plains of Colorado from 29 Apr-2 Jun and 8 Sep-4 Oct (eBird.org, accessed December 2016). Dark-lored birds on the eastern plains of Wyoming in late fall and winter “might be” leucophrys, rather than oriantha (Faulkner 2010) and 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.

As mentioned above, an oriantha was photographed at Crescent Lake NWR, Garden Co 18 Jun 2010 (Cory Gregory, eBird.org). A similar summer record was of one in Russell Co, Kansas 18 Jul 1994 (Thompson et al 2002). These summer sightings are not far from the breeding range of oriantha in Colorado and Wyoming.

An active Mitchell, Scotts Bluff Co feeder operation has hosted only three dark-lored birds: 22 Apr 2007, 4 Oct 2008, and 23 Oct 2013 (Kathy DeLara, pers. comm.); since these appeared during migration periods, and Leukering noted that the few leucophrys he sees occur only in winter, it is possible given the timing that at least the 2007 and 2008 birds were migrant oriantha.  Also based on timing, a dark-lored bird in Monroe Canyon 30 Sep 1920 (Dawson 1921) may have been oriantha, as well as two dark-lored birds in Kimball Co 2 May 2004. It is apparent that dark-lored White-crowned Sparrows are rare in western Nebraska; timing and location suggest oriantha rather than leucophrys.

Spring:  winter<<<>>> May 28, 28, 29

A later date is 31 May 2015 Dodge Co. For 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, and “hundreds” in Lincoln Co 30 Apr 2004.

SummerThere 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, 160 at Crescent Lake NWR 28 Sep 1994, and 150 at Kilpatrick Lake, Box Butte Co 28 Sep 2012.

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 southeast.  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, northwest, and northeast, 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, immature at Creighton, Knox Co 12-13 Jan 1999, 15 Jan 1953 Dawes Co, 20 on 26 Jan 2008 Broken Bow, Custer Co, 3 Feb 1960 Antelope Co, 2-4 at various locations in Custer Co 7-16 Feb 2015, 11 Feb 1983 Boone Co, two on 14 Feb 2015 Box Butte Co, 20 on 19 Feb 2018 Wayne Co, 24 Feb 2018 Ponca SP, Dixon Co 9 Mar 1957 Brown Co, and 10 Mar 1985 Sioux Co, 20 in a Wayne Co yard 19 Feb (CTW) and one at Ponca SP  24 Feb (EBr).


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum


Photograph (top) of a White-crowned Sparrow at Papillion, Sarpy Co 9 May 2013 by Phil Swanson.

Literature Cited

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.

Faulkner, D.W. 2010. Birds of Wyoming. Roberts and Company, Greenwood Village, Colorado, USA.

Gill, F., and D. Donsker (Eds). 2017. IOC World Bird List (v 7.3), accessed 30 January 2018.

Ludlow, C.S. 1935. A quarter-century of bird migration records at Red Cloud, Nebraska. NBR 3: 3-25.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I, Columbidae to Ploceidae. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, California, USA.

Rising, J.D. 1996. A guide to the identification and natural history of the sparrows of the United States and Canada.  Academic Press, New York, New York, USA.

Rosche, R.C. 1982. Birds of northwestern Nebraska and southwestern South Dakota, an annotated checklist. Cottonwood Press, Crawford, Nebraska, USA.

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.

Thompson, M.C., C.A. Ely, B. Gress, C. Otte, S.T. Patti, D. Seibel, and E.A. Young. 2011. Birds of Kansas.  University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, USA.

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.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen.  2021.  White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys). In Birds of Nebraska — Online. www.BirdsofNebraska.org

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 11 Jun 2021