Many species of sparrows vary considerably in appearance and vocalizations across their ranges in North America. In particular Dark-eyed Juncos, Song Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows show the most distinct populations. The White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), one of our largest and classiest-looking sparrow, can be separated into five subspecies: Eastern (Z. l. leucophrys), Gambel’s (Z. l. gambelii), Mountain (Z. l. oriantha), Nuttal’s (Z. l. nuttalli), and Puget Sound (Z. l. pugetensis). If you are following along in your Sibley Guide, he only has 4 types illustrated – lumping Nuttal’s and Puget Sound together as ‘Pacific’. The focus of this post is concerning the Puget Sound subspecies, which I had never seen prior to my recent visit to the coastal Pacific Northwest. After finishing up with work in Idaho, Ian Gardner and I took the ‘birders route’ back to PA by first going over to the coast of Washington and northern Oregon. On our first morning out birding along the coast, we quickly encountered multiple ‘Puget Sound’ White-crowned Sparrows and they proved to be quite common throughout our time in the region. This species’ overall dull brown upperparts, tan-washed underparts, and yellow bill gave it an immediately distinctive appearance compared to the Eastern and Mountain White-crowns that I am most familiar with. Another stark difference was how small the Puget Sound birds looked; nothing like the big, bulky sparrows I’m used to.
This subspecies is the only population that breeds west of the Cascades, in southwest British Columbia south to northwest California. It can be found in a variety of habitats within that range including pastures, forest clear-cuts, coastal shrub, and even parking lot hedgerows in downtown Seattle. The songs and calls of this population are quite variable, with 12 dialects currently known (Nelson, Hallberg, and Soha, 2004). Much more detailed discussion about the Puget Sound White-crowned Sparrow and other White-crown subpecies found in the Pacific Northwest can be found on this very informative page, created by Don Roberson. Below are some photos I was able to take of three separate adult male birds and one juvenile. The first two adults are from a rainy afternoon at Fort Stevens SP in northern Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The third adult is from a sunny afternoon at Salt Creek County Park in Washington. When I first saw this bird, I was confused since it appeared to have a pinkish bill but quickly realized the bird must have just been gorging itself on salmonberries and had stained its bill, throat, and upper breast pinkish. The juvenile was photographed at Westhaven State Park in Washington.