The appearance of the White-crowned Sparrow personifies, for me, the word “elegant”. Muted tones of silvery-grey, tan, brown and rust are offset by sharply crisp black and white and a coral-pink beak. They seem always to maintain a slender trimness that I’ve sought to capture in this life-size oil painting of a migrating male as I see them here in southern Ontario, each spring, often amid the early-blooming wildflowers of late April, and early May, such as the trillium (Trillium grandiflorum), Ontario’s provincial flower and prominently featured in the painting. The scene was inspired by seeing just such a sight early last May at Point Pelee National Park, Ontario, as well as in the woods behind my back fence.
The species nests from Alaska, through boreal forests to Newfoundland and Labrador, and south in the west as far as Arizona and California. Northern birds are migratory, moving as far south in winter as central Mexico and the West Indies. There are several distinctly marked regional differences, and I’ve chosen to paint the eastern, nominate one, which is by far the most commonly seen here, although the one that nests as far north as the treeless tundra above the arctic circle, Z. l. gambelli, and occupies much of Canada from Hudson Bay westward, or birds intermediate between leucophrys and gambelli, also occur in my region and are identifiable by having more white in front of the eye.
The family of birds called Emberizide is often extended to include these “American sparrows”, although some specialists separate them out into their own family, Passerellidae, the American Ornithological Society doing so formally in 2017. Neither the birds nor I care but it is worth noting that they are superficially similar to a more common species in my region, the White-throated Sparrow (Z. albicollis) and spring and fall my garden hosts both.
The generic name, “Zonotrichia”, derives from Ancient Greek words zone, meaning “band”, and thrix, “hair”, referring to the striped crowns sported by both these species (and, in western North America, the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Z. atricapilla). The species name comes from the word “leukos, for white, and “ophrus”, for eyebrow. Like many related species they are predominately seed eaters who shift to diets dominated by insects during the nesting season. They lay three to five prettily marked eggs on or close to the ground, in tundra, boreal forests and, along the west coast, chaparral and shrubbery.
Barry Kent MacKay
Bird Artist, Illustrator
Studio: (905) 472 9731
31 Colonel Butler Drive
Markham, ON L3P 6B6 Canada