In Britain, we have two native Sparrow species (three including the Dunnock, fondly nicknamed the ‘Hedge Sparrow’) the House Sparrow (which you may be familiar with) and the Tree Sparrow. However, occasionally we get a third species of Sparrow, the North American Native: The White-Crowned Sparrow.
A collage of the lovely 'Hedge Sparrow'. Far left photographed by @placeboplanet, other two by Lauren Fairfax.
Their body profile resembles that of our native species: ovate; with a pinched end for aerodynamism. Their plumage is a beautiful blend of russet red and amber feathers; individually bordered by a delicate white rim, while the underside is a pale sandy gray, grasping round their chest; extending up to their temples, either side of their striking ‘crown’. This is their most standout feature, and as lovely as the smart grey farmers cap of the House Sparrow is, the bleached black and white bandana of the White Crowned Sparrow is breath-taking, almost glowing on a dull day.
Along with general body impressions, their feeding habits are also similar, hopping around on the floor, probing for invertebrates and grains. They’ve even been spotted doing areal assaults on flying insects, before grinding them down. However, while we think of Sparrows as foraging cheerfully in social little communities, a loud, messy cohort, White-Crowned Sparrows aren’t very gregarious (social) at all.
Outside of the mating season, (May to August) they’re more relaxed, mixing with each-other and even banding together with White-Throated and House Sparrow flocks, but during that crucial mating season, they typically strike out on their own, passionately defending their precious territories.
Another major difference between them and our lovely native Sparrows, is that while you’ll struggle to get more sedentary than a House Sparrow, which rarely ventures more than 100m from its birthplace and the Tree Sparrow also being very localised, the White Crowned Sparrow undertakes extreme annual migrations, up to 3,000+ miles long!
While in Winter, they’ll contently live as far South as sunny Mexico, during Summer some undertake mammoth migrations, breaching the Arctic Circle; nesting on the freezing ground or in shrubby bushes, a world away from our domestic little House Sparrows, building their homes in warm, cozy nooks in our houses.
One of the most impressive things about this migration though, is that while many migratory species must regularly stop and recharge on their journeys, the White-Crowned Sparrow has an incredible mechanism in place, called the Natural Alertness Mechanism, which incredibly allows it to fly for two weeks straight without sleeping! Scientists are even studying this to engineer anti-sleep drugs for use in the military.
While common in its native range of the USA, and often recorded in Eastern Europe, the White Crowned Sparrow is an extremely rare visitor to Britain, only gracing our island as a scarce vagrant, ending up here thanks to powerful storms confusing it on migration.
Historically, there have only ever been a handful of records, all in recent years. The first two were in May 1977 (coinciding with the breeding season when they’re migrating) one on the Fair Isle, an extremely remote island off the NE of Shetland, and the other near the city of Hull. 13yrs later in 1995, the 3rd one showed up in Seaford Dockyards, however this suggests it likely hitchhiked over to us on a ship.
By far the most famous sighting though, was the 4th record. In 2008, at Cley Town in Norfolk, an adult was sighted. The Fens, already a hotspot for birding; today renowned for its endless floodplains; home to wetland ghosts like Spoonbills and Cranes, attracted hundreds of birders to the area, all eager to spot the lifer.
Coinciding with its visit, a local church, St Margaret’s Church, was undergoing restoration, and thanks to the wave of visiting birders, received over £6,000 to fund the restoration. And to commemorate the occasion, as when renovating the windows, the intrepid little sparrow was immortalized forever in its very own stain-glass window panel, which you can go to visit today.
This was by no means the most recent record, however. Several others have cropped up in recent years, hotspots surrounding the Outer Hebrides and Shetland Isles. In the past three years, White Crowned Sparrows have been spotted without failure-one in 2018, 2019, and the most recent (again in Shetland) on the 6th of July 2020, ironically by the 8yr old daughter of a local birder! I don’t know about you, but it does make me wonder when we’ll see the next one, and we’ll get one for the 4th year running…