You hear its song before you see it: the sweet, high, fluttering whistle of the white-crowned sparrow. This plain little bird with the snazzy white stripes on its black head perches in the tops of shrubbery and lets its sweet song rip.
Some subspecies migrate as far as 2,600 miles twice a year during periods of heightened alertness. Their reduced need for sleep during migration has piqued the interest of such entities as the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA, the folks who brought us the internet) and led to study of this remarkable little bird.
Of the five subspecies, the Nuttall’s is the only one that doesn’t migrate. It inhabits a narrow fog belt of the Pacific Coast from northern California to Santa Barbara, proving that even members of the animal kingdom have a hard time letting go of a piece of coastal California real estate once they’ve secured it.
They also sling local lingo. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, male white-crowned sparrows learn their songs not from their fathers but from the neighborhood, leading to localized dialects and, on occasion, biligualism in individual birds.