The Golden-crowned Sparrow is a medium sized sparrow, slightly larger than the closely related White-crowned Sparrow. It has a distinct gold patch on its head, flanked by two dark black stripes. When not breeding, its plumage is more variable, ranging from a small, dull gold patch and no black, to near breeding season plumage.
The song is a three note whistle, descending in pitch. It is very distinctive and often described as “Oh, dear me”, each note an interval lower in pitch than the preceding. However, birds in the mountains of British Columbia have been reported to have trill on the third note, rather than a clear whistle as in other populations. These songs are heard mainly in the breeding season, but also in the wintering grounds just after fall migration as well as just before they take off for spring migration.
Alaskan gold miners along the trails called this bird Weary Willie, because of its call which sounded like “I’m so weary”. The song resembles the popular tune known as “Volare” (Italian for the infinitive form of the verb “to fly”) written by Domenico Modugno in 1957. Sergio Franchi sang the song, with modified lyrics, as the television spokesman for the Plymouth Volare in the 1970s.
The entire population of Golden-crowned Sparrows migrates within North America. They leave the breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada late in the fall, most arriving on the wintering grounds throughout northwestern California, Oregon and Washington from mid-September through October. Birds begin to return to the breeding grounds in April or May.
These sparrows makes a habit out of digging in the ground for grubs, insects, and seeds. This is because it has extremely large feet and claws. They use a digging technique of jumping backward off of both feet at the same time, which stirs up the soil, leaf litter, or grass. They then move forward to see what they have uncovered. Sometimes, when they jump backward, you can see the seeds popping up from out of the grass, where they were hidden before.
Golden-crowned Sparrow Nests are usually dug into the ground or placed in a depression so their rims are even with the ground. Each bird has its own feeding spot at a bird feeder. Even when there are no other birds around, it uses its spot exclusively. A group of Golden-crowned Sparrows are collectively known as a “reign” of sparrows.
The Golden-crowned Sparrow was considered a pest early in the 20th Century, because flocks would feed on vegetables and flowers in gardens and cultivated fields. Its actual impact was not as great as was originally thought, and it is no longer considered a pest. Its population has grown in the past 30 years, and the Golden-crowned Sparrow is now a more common Washington winter resident than it was 30-50 years ago. Its far northern breeding grounds are well protected, with many of them located in national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges.