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Identifying White-crowned Sparrow Subspecies in Utah

posted by Ryan O'Donnell at
on Sunday, January 15, 2012 

One of the things that I love about birding is that the challenges never stop coming; there's always more to learn.  Once a birder has a pretty good handle on the species found in his or her area, they often move on to trying to tell subspecies apart.  This might sound quite intimidating at first, but for some subspecies, it can be pretty easy.

There are two subspecies of White-crowned Sparrow that regularly occur in Utah.  Mountain White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha; also called "Interior West White-crowned Sparrows") breed here, as you might expect, mostly in the mountains.  Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows (Z. l. gambelii) winter here, having migrated down from their breeding range in the western taiga of northern Canada.  Around the same time Gambel's are arriving from the north, the Mountains are heading south, leaving the state to winter in southern Arizona and northern Mexico.  There are a few eBird records of Mountain subspecies wintering in Utah, but I've never actually seen one documented here in Utah: I suspect it is very rare if it occurs at all in Utah in winter, but please comment below if you've documented Z. l. oriantha in Utah in winter.

Telling these two subspecies apart is relatively easy.  Gambel's have a yellowish bill and pale lores; Mountains have a pinkish bill and dark lores.  (The lores are the area between the eye and the bill.  Look to see whether the dark line that both subspecies have behind the eye continues in front of the eye to connect with the stripe on the side of the crown.)  Bill color is a little less reliable in young birds, but even the young ones usually have the appropriate color lores.

It is always possible that one of the other three subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows could show up in Utah, but this would be very unlikely.  Start by practicing telling these two subspecies apart, and you'll be more prepared for a vagrant of another subspecies.  For more on distinguishing subspecies of White-crowned Sparrows apart, see this and this post from David Sibley; for the VERY interested, see this extensive treatment, also by Sibley.

Adult Mountain White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. oriantha,  Logan, Cache County, Utah.  11 May 2011.

Adult Mountain White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. oriantha, Antelope Island, Davis County, Utah.  7 May 2011.

Adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. gambelii, Washington County, Utah.  19 Mar 2011.

Immature Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. gambelii, Cache County, Utah.  20 Feb 2011.
Immature Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. gambelii.  Gunlock Reservoir, Washington County, Utah.  16 Mar 2007.

Probably an adult Gambel's White-crowned Sparrow, Z. l. gambelii, Beaver Dam Wash, Washington County, Utah.  28 Nov 2009.  This individual appears to have an unusually dark bill relative to most Gambel's.  Are those brownish sides?  Are the white stripes dingier than expected for Gambel's?  This might be worth looking at again when I get more experience: is this possibly a vagrant of a Pacific Northwest subspecies?

(All photos copyright Ryan O'Donnell)

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Blogger Stephanie Greenwood said...

Or a hybrid gambels x mountain?

January 15, 2012 at 5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've only seen the Pacific group White-crowned a few times in Oregon, but their bill color was closer to Gambel's than Mountain if not yellower. I thought the age or moult might make a difference in the side color, but it seems all White-crowned Sparrows are in fresh plumage before they migrate (from the few papers I can access here at the moment). In New Mexico, we get basically the same combination of subspecies, so I'll keep an eye out this winter for any variations.

January 15, 2012 at 10:56 PM  
Blogger Anonymous eBirder said...

Cool post, Ryan. I always wondered how to tell apart the subspecies, but was too lazy to look it up.

January 18, 2012 at 8:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

For a contrast, here is a post separating Gambel's White-crowned from Puget Sound white-crowned.

January 18, 2012 at 1:47 PM  
Anonymous Dave Irons said...

This morning (2 March 2012)I just completed an update to the BirdFellow.com species page for White-crowned Sparrow. The written account offers discussion of all five subspecies. We could definitely use some more photos of adult "Mountain" White-crowneds and we don't have any images of immature Mountain White-crowneds. I spent quite a bit of time studying Gambel's and Eastern White-crowneds during a recent trip to s. Texas and I have also spent a lot of time comparing Puget Sound and Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows side by side (in Oregon where I live). To check out the BirdFellow account, go to: http://www.birdfellow.com/birds/white-crowned-sparrow-zonotrichia-leucophrys If you want to contribute images to our site, simply create an account (it's free) and add your photos to our community galleries. If you tag your images with the common name of the bird, they will append to the community gallery for that species page.

March 2, 2012 at 3:56 PM  

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