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Number of species: 79

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White-crowned Sparrow - Zonotrichia leucophrys

White-crowned Sparrow has a partial preformative molt, and partial prealternate molts. This species is easy to age reliably in fall simply by the head pattern; in spring this is rarely helpful, but wing and tail can be used to age most individuals. Sex can usually be determined only by brood patch / cloacal protuberance during the breeding season, although particularly small or large wing chords (varying by subspecies) may be indicative of sex for a minority of birds.

The five recognized subspecies differ somewhat in appearance and extent of molt, but the overall patterns are sufficiently consistent for ageing/sexing guidelines to apply to all of them.

Quick tips

  • Look at the crown - in fall only DCB (AHY) birds have white and black stripes, while FCF (HY) birds have tan and brown stripes; note that after the prealternate molt this feature is generally not helpful, as some FCA (SY) birds may retain a few brown feathers on the crown, but even DCA (ASY) individuals can occasionally have brown feathers on the hindcrown).
  • Examine the rectrices - FCF/FCA birds have uniformly narrow and pointed rectrices OR contrastingly fresh and broad central rectrices, while uniformly broad and more rounded rectrices are typical of DCB/DCA (AHY/ASY), but beware that rectrix shape can be quite variable in this species, so use this criteria with caution and place an emphasis on feather condition.
  • Check the wing for molt limits - FCF/FCA (HY/SY) birds show a contrast between darker/fresher greater coverts and the paler block of primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries; this tends to be more readily visible in spring.

Species account prepared by McGill Bird Observatory (2016). Last updated by Marcel Gahbauer (Mar 2022)

The molt categories displayed below may be filtered by month.

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Click on any image below to bring up the side-by-side comparison tool.

Individuals not in molt

FCJ - (HY: May - August)
Head relatively dark and indistinctly patterned; underparts coarsely streaked
No images available yet
FCF - (HY: July - December; SY January - April)
Crown stripes brown and beige; rectrices all narrow and pointed, or mixed with contrastingly fresh and broad central rectrices; primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries contrastingly paler than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2571-20776-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1983.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2571-20776-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1985.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2571-20776-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1984.jpg
FCA - (SY: February - September)
Crown stripes mostly to entirely black and white; rectrices all narrow and pointed, or mixed with contrastingly fresh and broad central rectrices; primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries contrastingly paler than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90749-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1986.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90749-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1988.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90749-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1987.jpg
DCB - (AHY: July - December; ASY January - April)
Crown stripes black and white; rectrices uniformly broad and rounded; wing largely uniform in colour and wear, with secondaries and primary coverts only slightly lighter than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MH3-2251-52733-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-2040.jpg Thumbnail - MH3-2251-52733-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-2042.jpg Thumbnail - MH3-2251-52733-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-2041.jpg
DCA - (ASY: February - September)
Crown stripes black and white; rectrices uniformly broad and rounded; wing largely uniform in colour and wear, with secondaries and primary coverts only slightly lighter than greater coverts
U
Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90728-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1980.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90728-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1982.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-2261-90728-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1981.jpg

Individuals in active molt

FPJ - (HY: May - August)
Similar to FCJ; some natal down remaining and/or juvenile flight feathers still growing in
U
Thumbnail - MG2-9901-00003-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1989.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-9901-00003-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1991.jpg Thumbnail - MG2-9901-00003-Zonotrichia_leucophrys_AOU_7_52-1990.jpg
FPF - (HY: July - October)
Similar to FCF; median and greater coverts and in some cases also tertials and central rectrices being replaced
No images available yet
FPA - (SY: January - May)
Similar to FCA, with crown feathers in transition and usually active replacement of feathers among one or more of the inner greater coverts, tertials, and central rectrices
No images available yet
SPB - (SY: July - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained juvenile primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts distinctly pale brown and very worn
No images available yet
DPB - (AHY: July - October)
Flight feathers being replaced, with retained primaries, secondaries, and/or primary coverts either distinctly adult (relatively dark, less worn) or intermediate
No images available yet
DPA - (ASY: January - May)
Similar to DCB, with active replacement of feathers among one or more of the inner greater coverts, tertials, and central rectrices
No images available yet

Applicable unknown plumage/age classes

Molt classes Age Months Key traits
M-FPF / UPU (FPF, SPB, DPB) U July - October Undergoing preformative or prebasic molt, but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FCF / UCU (FCF, SCB, DCB) U/AHY July - April In formative or basic plumage (molt completed), but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FPA / UPA (FPA, DPA) AHY January - May Undergoing prealternate molt, but cycle is not reliably distinguishable
M-FCA / UCA (FCA, DCA) AHY February - September In alternate plumage (molt completed), but cycle is not reliably distinguishable

Number of species: 79

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