A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


Primarily a winter bird in Sonoma County. Usually present from late September/early October through late April or so. Common in parks, wooded areas, open brushy areas near woods. Regular winter feeder visitor in Sonoma County. Usually forages on the ground. Moves in small flocks on the ground or through low trees or brush, often mixed with our other common winter Zonotrichia sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow, or with towhees and juncos. Breeds in Western Canada, coastal Alaska.

Usually identified by the golden crown, but we rarely see this bird in full breeding plumage, so pictures in field guides are often more confusing than helpful, especially to beginning birders. We mostly see winter birds in which the gold crown is often an attenuated brownish-yellow, sometimes barely visible (although there is usually some suggestion of yellow on the top of the head) flanked by dark brown--field guides often show the flanking color as a rich black. Only birds in full breeding plumage will have the starkly striped (black-yellow-black) look often shown. From the side, no yellow or gold may be visible on the head at all on birds wintering here. Most Golden-crowned Sparrows will be well north of Sonoma County when sporting such bright colors (but not all--see below).

Personally, I find Golden-crowned Sparrow fairly easy to identify even without seeing the head well because it has a distinctive back pattern that always suggests to me the bird has a bolt of Harris tweed thrown over its shoulders. Golden-crowned Sparrow is a comparatively large sparrow; with a longish tail; tweedy brown upper back; pale brownish-grey underparts and face (quite variable--can be distinctly grey, or quite buff), often browner on the flanks; hints of whitish wing bars, but with a broken, spotted look to them (especially the upper "bar," which is sometimes just a couple of white flecks); medium bill (often with a darker upper mandible and a paler, slightly yellowish lower mandible); pinkish legs; and a markedly plaintive song of three, slow, descending notes that sound like words spoken through a sigh. Immature birds similar to adult but lacking distinct head patterning. Very young birds may have a streaked breast.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 117

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 468

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 424

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 482

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 622-623

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 594

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 341

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 435

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 358

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 246-251 (notes on sparrow ID generally), p. 250

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 419-433 (notes on sparrow ID generally), p. 37, 432

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 258

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 70

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 294

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 338

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 316

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 691

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 429

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 394

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--Golden-crowned Sparrow



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


A late-season bird in full breeding plumage--unusual in Sonoma County.

Note the bright gold crown and deep black crown stripes

Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, April 16, 2011

Golden-crowned Sparrow, Spring Lake, Santa Rosa, January 21, 2012

Note typical attenuated white wing bars, brown crown stripes and

apparent lack of golden crown in a winter bird viewed laterally

Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa, January 8, 2011

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 7, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia atricapilla