Thursday, October 10, 2019

Do you hear that song? Golden-crowneds are back!

The more seasons you’ve been birding, the more you know what changes to expect with each one. Many Northwest birders eagerly anticipate the fall arrival of golden-crowned sparrows, and I am definitely in that camp. Others enjoy seeking out shorebird or raptor migration hot spots, which I’ve enjoyed as well. But the golden-crowned is so accommodating it comes right to your backyard, no travel required.
Brown nonbreeding plumage. Photo by Greg Gillson

I usually hear my first fall golden-crowned—oh dear me—singing from the fading blackberries. Like many sparrows, they’re not showy, they’re kinda brown, and they’re even more brown in the nonbreeding season, but their voice is always distinctive and evocative. Oh dear me, I'm so tired the bird sings in a somewhat wistful, descending, three-note phrase, sometimes with a bit of a flourish. It’s one mnemonic that’s easy to remember and not often confused with other bird voices, especially at this time of year in the Willamette Valley.



Sexy breeding plumage complete with golden crown.
Photo by Greg Gillson
I’ve never been to their northern breeding grounds in Alaska and British Columbia. How those songs must fill the air when the males are full of testosterone and the urge to mate. Are their breeding-ground songs different from the winter wistful songs I know so well? They are certainly more frequent! Most songbirds quit singing once nesting season is through, or at least they slow down a lot. On sunny winter days, song sparrows and house finches will get their groove on, but for the most part what we hear on the land are calls, shorter, simpler sounds made by flock members, between pairs, or in alarm when that Cooper’s hawk is near.

So when the first mournful song of the golden-crowned catches my ear, I smile. They may just sing for a few weeks then quiet down for the season, but that sound officially marks the start of fall for me. I’ll watch for them and other wintering sparrows like fox, Lincoln’s, and white-throated when I visit hedgerows, blackberry borders, wetlands, pretty much everywhere except deep forest. And since they’re in my yard, I’ll toss some millet out and “forget” to rake up leaves so they’ve got some good scratching spots. I’ll reacquaint myself with their quieter calls, and once spring rolls around they’ll start up with oh dear me again before leaving the valley for parts north. Good luck, little sparrows! That’s a helluva journey.





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