The adults of this Pacific species are distinctive, but the immatures are the plainest-faced Zonotrichia. The bird prefers denser brush than the white-crowned, and its behavior is similar to the white-throated. Monotypic. Length 7".
Brownish back streaked with dark brown; breast, sides, and flanks grayish brown. Bill dusky above, pale below. Adult: yellow patch tops black crown; less distinct in winter. Immature: less-distinct yellow patch on brown crown. Juvenile: dark streaks on breast and sides. Plumage briefly held.
White-crowned sparrows have distinct head striping at all ages; the golden-crowned has a plainer, brown face, with almost no contrast, darker underparts, and dusky bill. The yellow crown is usually present as a trace of color on the forecrown and above the eyes.
Call: a flat tsick. Flocking birds give a husky chatter. Flight note: a soft tseep. Song: a series of 3 or more plaintive, whistled notes, often with each on a descending note: oh dear me.
Status and Distribution
Fairly common. Winters south to northern Baja California. Breeding: stunted boreal bogs and in open country near tree line, especially in willows and alders. Winter: dense woodlands, tangles, brush, chaparral. Migration: spring migration mid-March–mid-May, peaking mid-April; fall migration mid-September–early November, peaking mid-October. Vagrant: casual to the East.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006