Meet Weary Willie, the Golden-crowned Sparrow

I love winter. I haven’t always been that way, but I have come to really enjoy the quiet, misty, cool days that envelope us here on the west coast. I’m originally from a sunny climate, and many of the folks back home tell me they couldn’t imagine living with the cloud and rain we have here. But it’s (relatively) warm every day, and while it’s sometimes wet, the thing I love is that it’s green, green, green. And it’s one of the only places in Canada where the birding is just as good, if not better, in winter than it is in summer. One of my favourite birds of winter is the golden-crowned sparrow.

Isn’t it a beauty?

female golden-crowned sparrow
This one is a bit less golden in the crown; likely a first-winter bird.

Golden-crowned sparrows: a sad song?

It was during the Klondike gold rush that they got their nickname Weary Willie. Their three-note song is beautiful to my ear, but if you were a down-on-your-luck miner you would hear the song as “I’m so tired”, “Ohh dear me” or, even more bleakly, “Nooo gold here.”

It’s funny how we project our feelings onto birds. The sadness of the Weary Willie mnemonic gives you some indication of how truly awful a Klondike gold miner’s life usually turned out to be.

At the other extreme, I often hear people characterize a robin’s song as “cheerio, cheerily, cheery me” which is really taking some licence, I think. I mean, it’s a beautiful song but there’s nothing particularly cheerful about it. They’re up there threatening to kick the crap out of rival males while trying to avoid getting torn to shreds by a Cooper’s hawk. Cheerio indeed.

Looking fine.

A bird of winter

The time to see golden-crowned sparrows in southern climes (southern BC down to California) is winter. They are best found by ear; visually they’re just a little brown job like so many of our winter birds, until you get close enough to see the crown. They seem to be more likely to sing upon arrival in the fall and again as spring looms; they’re pretty quiet in the dead of winter (and really, aren’t we all?)

They’re a surprisingly big sparrow, and sometimes I have found myself writing them off as house sparrows, until I take a bit of a closer look. The golden crown is a giveaway.

Golden-crowned sparrows are hungry eaters and will help clean out at your seed feeder, though they, like juncos, seem happier to wait for seed to fall on the ground. Tom and I can also personally attest that they’re really into freshly-sown grass seed—the more expensive the better. Yum. (Here on the coast, late winter is a good time to seed a lawn—and a good time for migratory birds to fatten up before travel.)

golden-crowned sparrow
Delicious seeds.

Making the baby golden-crowned sparrows

By spring, our birds are on their way up north again, to the mountainous terrain of the Yukon and Alaska. They also nest in Alberta, way up in the mountains. They are specialists at living in scrubby terrain right at tree line—a land of cold winds and sudden summer storms. In that harsh territory, they raise one brood per season if they’re lucky. (Down here in the south, some of our songbirds can raise three broods in a good year, though they must be exhausted by the end of it).

The division of labour among songbirds fascinates me. With these sparrows, the job of nest building belongs to the female. She gathers grass, feathers, and caribou hair and with them builds a perfect cup-shaped nest on the ground. Meanwhile he hops around her singing all the while. Isn’t that helpful?

Likewise incubation: it’s pretty much entirely up to her. Mind you, once the chicks hatch about 12 days later, both parents work hard at keeping those big mouths fed, and both take on the (surely unpleasant) task of removing the chicks’ fecal sacs from the nest (often by eating them. Seriously. Bleah.)

The chicks are mobile and out of the nest just 10 days later, though the parents still feed them for a while. Soon they’ll all be migrating south, where we will be awaiting their arrival—and their plaintive song—as a sign that the long cool winter is here again.

golden-crowned sparrow

Let me brighten your Friday.

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1 thought on “Meet Weary Willie, the Golden-crowned Sparrow”

  1. I look forward every Friday to your newsletter. You pack a lot of information into a very tightly crafted piece. Your enthusiasm and love of birding comes through and the pictures are great for us newbies to birding, adding sound is a wonderful bonus. Well done!


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