A Closer Look: Wintering White-crowned Sparrows in Texas

Sorting out the various subspecies in most species of sparrows can be a vexing and trying experience, especially when you look at birds like Song and Savannah Sparrow, which express a lot of geographic variation. On the opposite side end of the spectrum, White-crowned Sparrows can be mastered once you know what to look for.

Shawneen Finnegan and I recently took a trip to south Texas. During our visit we took the opportunity to study and photograph the two subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows that winter in this region. Coming from Oregon, where we see mostly "Puget Sound" White-crowned Sparrows (subspecies pugetensis) and a few migrant "Gambel's" White-crowned Sparrows (subspecies gambelii) in spring and fall, I was anxious to check out the nominate dark-lored "Eastern" birds (subspecies leucophrys) along with getting more exposure to immature Gambel's.


These two photos offer a comparison between a dark-lored Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (above) and pale-lored Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow (below). In addition to the coloration of the lores, note the differences in bill color, which is darker and pinker in "leucophrys" vs. lighter and more orange in "gambelii." Note also that the postocular stripe is bit thicker and seems to curve up a bit at the back on the dark-lored bird and appears thinner and straighter (more horizontal) in the pale-lored bird. To my eye, the black lateral crown stripes and the postocular stripe on adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows (below) usually look narrower than those of other forms of White-crowned Sparrows, which makes their head pattern look white dominant, whereas the broader black striping in other forms makes their head patterns look black dominant. Finally, the gray areas on the lower face, throat and and upper breast of Gambel's are a paler and brighter pearl gray, while the same gray areas on other subspecies tend to be just a bit dingier and have a slight brownish cast. The top bird was photographed on 6 February 2012 in Atascosa County, Texas and the bottom bird was photographed on 17 April 2010 in Eugene, Oregon.


On our first full day of birding we spent the bulk of our time in southern Atascosa and northern Live Oak counties, where we encountered huge numbers of sparrows. We didn't see a lot of White-crowned Sparrows and it was raining pretty hard when we finally came upon a modest flock.  As Matt Heindel had suggested in a conversation the previous evening, dark-lored birds predominated. In fact, that first day we didn't notice any Gambel's. Since the sparrowing (mostly non-White-crowneds) was so good, we decided that we would spend our last morning before flying home back in this same area.

Upon returning a week later to better, albeit still overcast weather, we made an effort to get better looks at White-crowned Sparrows.  Along Co. Rd. 412 in extreme southern Atascosa County we found a cooperative flock that had both subspecies. There were many immatures in the group and in short order we noticed a number of significant differences between them.


This pair of photos features fairly typical immature Eastern White-crowned Sparrow (Z. l. leucophrys). The dark connecting line in the lores is very thin, but apparent in both of these birds. They share some similarities with the adult Eastern White-crowned in that the gray areas on the face, throat, and breast tend to be somewhat dingy and the bill is a bit dusky on the culmen and pinkish overall. Also note the color of their lateral crown stripes, which are pretty dark reddish-brown to dark brown and the fairly broad rusty-brown postocular stripe that curves upward towards the nape. Also note the color of the supercilium, which is gray and fairly dark. Finally, note the rump color and the color of the upperparts in general, which are mostly brown and dull in appearance.


I found that the immature Eastern White-crowned Sparrows we looked at consistently showed the traits described in the caption above. When seen side-by-side with Gambel's, they were much darker on the crown, dingier gray below, browner on the rump, and their supercilia were not nearly as pale or  obvious. Their pale central crown stripes were pretty narrow, so when seen in profile the forecrown looked nearly solid dark brown.


These two birds are immature Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows. In comparing them to the two immature Eastern White-crowned above, there are several fairly obvious differences. Note the difference in both color and pattern on the head. The lateral crown stripes of these two Gambel's are much more colorful and rusty reddish and they have broader pale central crown stripes, which combine to give them to look more suggestive of a basic-plumaged Chipping Sparrow. Also, their supercilia are much paler and creamier in color than any other part of the head or face, thus the supercilum really stands out. Also note the thickness, color, and shape of the postocular stripe, which is much narrower in Gambel's and dusky gray to almost blackish and how it extends straight back to the nape without curving upward. Like adult Gambel's, the gray areas on the face, throat and breast are paler and brighter gray than the gray areas on an Eastern White-crowned. Finally, note the rump and lower back color, which is paler and has a grayish cast and how the rump/lower back contrasts noticeably with the coloration of the upper back streaking.


Aside from the photo of the adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, all of these photos were taken within about a 15-minute span on 6 February 2012. I was photographing from the car, so I didn't move or change light angles for any of the shots of the immatures. These birds were in mixed flock near the intersection of Co. Rds. 411 and 412 in southern Atascosa County, Texas. 

While there were no lifers to be gained in this endeavor, for me one of the most appealing aspects of traveling away from home to go birding is the opportunity to examine and better understand the geographic and subspecific variation in species that I see commonly close to home. In that sense, these birds were "new" and they offered a chance for me to further test my observation skills. While the illustrations in better field guides usually show these variations pretty well, there is not enough space in most to include all the text needed to fully explain the subtle differences, which when compared in life may not be as subtle as they might otherwise appear. In this case, I was struck by how different the immatures of these two subspecies look when seen side-by-side.


Very nice comparison. Here in the northeast Gambell’s is very rare, so my opportunities for direct side to side will be minimal. Nonetheless I’ll try and keep these points in mind. Well done & thanks


Very interesting. Here are links to a couple of photos of hatch year birds that I took in Cleveland, Ohio, on 26 October 2010.
One of these photos shows the line in the lores very faintly, the other not at all, as far as I can tell. The postocular stripes both look fairly straight. The supercilliums seem uniform gray.
I don’t have experience with the subspecies, but these are presumably Z. l. leucophrys. They do look a bit different, though.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.



Your birds are most interesting. The color of the bills (look pinkish to me) and the underparts (dingy-gray with substantial brown on the flanks) point to these birds being “leucophrys.” Immature leucophrys typically show a very thin dark line through the lores (area between the base of bill and the eye). I see that on the bird in photo #5119632946. Conversely, I don’t see any evidence of a dark line in the lores of the bird in photo #5119644394. David Sibley has a couple excellent pieces about White-crowned Sparrow subspecies on his website and he mentions in one that Gambel’s and Eastern White-crowned Sparrow populations are known to cross-breed and that intergrades may show intermediate characteristics. I think that the bird lacking dark in the lores may be such an intergrade.



Thanks for the thoughts. I took a look at Sibley’s web site, and it seems likely that the bird without the dark line in the lores is an intergrade. I need to go back to my photos from that day to see whether there are others that might show anything of interest.


Great photos, Christopher! I have seen pelnty of Savannah Sparrows but not this subspecies. I guess I would have to travel to the coast to see one. Thanks for the info.


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