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White-throated Sparrow

A medium-sized sparrow species with a distinctive black and white striped head, a rusty-brown back and wings, and a white throat and belly. It is a common bird in deciduous and mixed forests across much of North America, and its clear, whistled song is a familiar sound in many woodland areas.

White-throated Sparrow

Scientific name: Zonotrichia albicollis

Though restricted to Canada and the northeastern U.S. as a breeding species, the White-throated Sparrow is common in migration and winter over large portions of the U.S. White-throated Sparrows often begin singing in early spring prior to their northward migration, and their plaintive song is a familiar one to birders.

The range of the Brown-headed Cowbird barely overlaps with the breeding range of the White-throated Sparrow, so nest parasitism is very rare. Some pairs raise two broods in a season, and if it is attempted, the female begins laying the second clutch just days after the first brood has fledged.

Description of the White-throated Sparrow

BREEDING MALE

The White-throated Sparrow is rather large compared to most sparrows, with rufous on the upperparts and wings, a bold eyeline that may be either white or tan and is bordered by darker brown or black, and lores that range from dingy to bright yellow.  A distinct white throat is set off by grayer underparts.  Length: 7 in.  Wingspan: 9 in.

White-throated Sparrow

White throated Sparrow 1 gb
Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

 

White throated Sparrow 2 gb
Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Female

Sexes similar.

Seasonal change in appearance

None.

Juvenile

Similar to adults, but duskier and with a less pronounced head pattern.

Habitat

White-crowned Sparrows breed in mixed and coniferous forests and winter are found in woodlands, brushy areas, and well-vegetated yards and parks.

Diet

White-throated Sparrows eat seeds and insects, and will come to bird feeders for seeds.

Behavior

They usually forage on the ground, scratching in the plant litter, but will also forage in low trees or bushes.

Range

White-throated Sparrows breed in Canada and parts of the northern and western U.S. They winter in the eastern and southern U.S. and along the West Coast. The population has declined slightly in recent decades.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the White-throated Sparrow.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

Two color morphs exist: those with tan eyelines and those with white eyelines.  Pairs usually consist of one of each form.

Males with white eyelines are more aggressive and tend to sing more than males with tan eyelines.

Vocalizations

The clear, somewhat plaintive song is usually given as “old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody”.  One frequently heard call is a sharp “chink”.

Attracting

Will feed on suet.

Similar Species

Nesting

The nest is an open cup of weeds, grass, and twigs, lined with grass and hair and placed on the ground.

Number: Usually lay 3-6 eggs.
Color: Pale blue or greenish-blue, marked with purple or brown.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 11-14 days and leave the nest in another 8-9 days but continue to associate with the adults for some time.

Bent Life History of the White-throated Sparrow

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the White-throated Sparrow – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


WHITE-THROATED SPARROW
ZONOTRICHIA ALBICOLLIS (Gmelin)

Contributed by JAMES K. LOWTHER, Dept. of Biology, Bishop’s University, Lennoxville, Quebec
and
J. BRUCE FALLS, Dept. of Zoology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario

HABITS

The white-throated sparrow is a familiar bird in many parts of North America, particularly in the northeastern United States and the Canadian northland. It exhibits no subspecific variation, although it is distributed widely over most of North America east of the Rocky Mountains. The breeding range extends from Newfoundland west to northern British Columbia, and from West Virginia, northern New England, central Wisconsin and central Alberta north to the limit of trees in northern Canada. It winters over most of the eastern United States, with a westerly extension into southern Arizona, Nevada, and throughout California.

The first description of the white-throated sparrow was published in G. Edward’s “Gleanings” (1760), and was based on a specimen from “Pensilvania.” Edward’s description formed the basis for the scientific name Fringilla albicollis Gmelin, which appears in Linnaeus’ “System Naturae” (1789).

Perhaps the most familiar characteristic of the white-throated sparrow is its song, from which many vernacular names have arisen. A number of these names are listed by W. L. McAtee (1957): Canada bird, Canada whitethroat, Canadian song sparrow, Hard-times Canada bird, Kennedy bird, Nightingale, Night-singer, Old Sam Peabody, Old Tom Peabody, Paddy-wack, Peabiddy bird, Peabody, Peabody bird, Poor Kennedy bird, Poor Sam Peabody, Sweet pinkey, Sweet sweet Canada bird, Tom Peabody, Whistle bird, Whistling sparrow, and Widow bird. French Canadians know the white-throat by such names as Frédéric, Petit Frédéric, Linotte, Rossignol, and Siffleur. The only names based on plumage characteristics are striped-head, white-throat, and, in French Canada, le Pinson à Gorge Blanche.

Until recently most published literature on the white-throated sparrow was concerned mainly with physiological studies, or with different aspects of migration and wintering habits. Comparatively little was known of the species on its breeding grounds. Since 1958 James K. Lowther, J. Bruce Falls, and others have been conducting researches on nesting habitat, nesting cycle, plumages, song, and behavior in the southern portion of Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. Unless otherwise noted, information reported here is drawn from these studies.

The white-throated sparrow is a brushland bird in both its breeding and wintering ranges. In Algonquin Park it nests most frequently in clearings in semio pen stands of balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and spruces (Picea spp.), and to a lesser extent in semiopen mixed stands of birch (Betula papyrfera), poplars (Populus spp.), balsam fir, and spruces. In general, the nest is located on the ground in areas of small trees between which are clumps of beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta) and a ground vegetation of blueberry (Vaccinum spp.) and various grasses and herbs.

Harold S. Peters and Thomas D. Burleigh (1951) reported that in Newfoundland some white-throats were present in the “high ptarmigan barrens where clumps of dwarf spruce and tamarack furnish shelter.” At Goose Bay, Labrador, W. W. Judd (1951) found that white throated sparrows occupied areas similar to ptarmigan barrens on the upper plateau, but on the lower plateau they “were seen in black spruce trees around borders of open areas in sphagnum bogs.” In Maine, the white-throat “probably [reaches] its densest population at elevations on the mountains where thin soils support only a stunted and openly-spaced growth of trees” (Palmer, 1949). At Churchill, Manitoba, near the tree-line Falls found white-throats fairly common in very local sites where the spruce forest reached its maximum density and trees grew to 35 feet in height. Openings were present, however, including roadsides and a railway line. In this area the more open habitats with smaller trees were occupied by Harris’ sparrows and white-crowned sparrows. In Saskatchewan, Alberta, and northern British Columbia, this species breeds in some areas of the aspen parkland, as well as in the boreal forest of the northern portions of these provinces. The parklands are characterized by “the dominance of mature aspen growing in semiopen stands with occasional dense groves of smaller aspens, scattered white spruce, white birch, and, in the depressions along seepage courses, groves of willows” (Munro and Cowan, 1947). Throughout most of the range, it appears that whitethroats nest in areas similar to those reported for Algonquin Park.

Territory: Males begin to sing and chase intruders from their territories soon after arriving on the breeding grounds. On May 19, 1959, most birds in Algonquin Park were paired and territorial boundaries were well established. Chases and fights between males occur frequently at the beginning of the breeding season but are seldom seen in late June and July. Advertising song is given chiefly from a few singing posts (see Voice). White-striped females occasionally sing (see Voice) but otherwise females appear to take no part in advertising or defending the territory. All the activities of the pair take place in the territory until about the middle of July when most of the young are becoming independent. After that males appear to be less aggressive and territorial boundaries are disregarded.

N. D. Martin (1960) censused a number of plots in Algonquin Park several times each year. He found that densities of whitethroats varied from none in bog and hardwood forest to 56 territorial males per 100 acres in a stand of balsam fir and white spruce. Areas of 110 territories varied from 0.05 to 2.7 acres with an average of 0.52 acres. As these values are based on only a few observations of each bird, they must be regarded as minimum estimates. Maire Lainevool (unpublished data) carried out an intensive study of the territories of 20 mated and 3 unmated males in an open coniferous stand where the population density was about 25 territorial males per 100 acres. Each bird was watched for 1 to 4 hours in the morning several times during the breeding season. Territory size tended to decrease over the period from the arrival of the females until the young left the nest. Total areas occupied over the whole period averaged 1.9 (0.9 to 3.2) acres for mated birds and 2.5 (1.5 to 2.8) acres for unmated males.

J. K. Lowther banded 47 males and 30 females on breeding territories in 1959; 19 males and 3 females were retrapped on the same sites in 1960 and a careful search failed to reveal other banded birds. It thus appears that males have a greater tendency than females to return to the same territory from year to year.

Courtship: As will be described later, the white-throated sparrow is a polymorphic species. For both males and females in winter and nuptial plumages, two color types, based on the color of the median crown stripe, were described: the white-striped and tan-striped types. [EDITOR’S NOTE: The word “type” is substituted throughout this account for the author’s technically more accurate “morph” (see Lowther, 1961) which may not be familiar to some readers.] Among breeding birds, there is assortative mating of opposite types, a situation which is apparently unique among birds. Of 213 pairs caught and banded in Algonquin Park, 136 were of white-striped males and tan-striped females, 70 of tan-striped males and white-striped females, 6 of tan-striped males and females, and only 1 of a white-striped males and females. Therefore, white-striped birds mate selectively with tan-striped birds.

Investigations were made of behavioral differences between breeding adults of both types in Algonquin Park in order to determine at least some of the factors governing the assortative mating (Lowther, MS., and see also Voice). Experiments with tape recordings showed that white-striped males are more aggressive than tan-striped males toward singing individuals. Furthermore white-striped females sing, tan-striped females do not, and white-striped males act aggressively toward singing females, while tan-striped males do not. Finally, the trill note of a female elicits a copulatory excitation in males of both types, but when the trills are accompanied by songs of either males or females, this excitation of white-striped males is suppressed and is replaced by aggressive behavior. This is not true for tan-striped males, which were seen to copulate with their white-striped females, even when a tape recording of a strange male was being played.

From these data, Lowther suggested a mechanism that might govern the assortative mating in this species. As white-striped males act aggressively toward any singing white-throat and white-striped females sing, then these males drive off any white-striped female and thus mate only with tan-striped females. Alternatively, as songs of male birds are supposed to attract females, which they do in the white-throated sparrow, the higher rate of singing of white-striped males attracts more females of either type. Thus white-striped males would have a greater choice of females from which to select their mates. By driving off the singing white-striped females, they monopolize the available tan-striped females and leave the white-striped females to mate with the tan-striped males.

As already mentioned (see also Voice), the trill of the female appears to be a precopulatory note which incites the male. When trilling, the female crouches on the branch, holds her tail level with or slightly above the line of the back, and flutters her wings. The male approaches with a relatively slow fluttering flight. Upon his approach, the female increases the intensity of trilling and wing-fluttering. The male mounts the female, and copulation occurs. Both partners preen for a few seconds following copulation.

Nesting: Only the female white-throated sparrow builds the nest. In 1959 and 1960 in Algonquin Park, Ontario, eight banded female white-throats were observed carrying nesting material. In both years several male birds were under close observation, but none was ever seen carrying nesting material. As the female builds the nest without help from the male, she probably also selects the nest site.

Little is known about the process of nest building. During the Algonquin Park studies, it was estimated that nest-site selection and nest building took place between May 14 and May 22. Birds were seen carrying nesting materials only in the morning activity periods. The area over which the birds seek nesting material, the number of trips made to and from the nest, and the total time involved in nest building are not known.

If the nest suffers predation, or if the bird renests in the same general area in subsequent years, it builds a new nest a considerable distance from the first. Of the six renests noted in Algonquin Park, each was more than 100 feet from the first.

Lowther analyzed 39 nests for nesting materials. Each nest was divided into the outer portion and the inner lining, and each portion was analyzed separately. The other portions were made of coarse grasses in 36 nests, wood chips in 30 nests, twigs in 14 nests, pine needles in 10 nests, roots in 7 nests, and small quantities of deer hair, moss, and fine grasses in 4 nests. The linings were composed of fine grasses and rootlets in 38 nests, deer hair in 36 nests, pine needles in S nests, and small quantities of wood chips, twigs, roots, and mosses in 2 nests.

With few exceptions the nest is built on the ground at the edge of a clearing, and is usually well concealed by the ground vegetation. There are seven records of nests built off the ground. Macoun (1904) reported four of these—in the roots of an upturned stump, in a small thick bush on rocky ground, 3 feet up in a raspberry bush, and in a brush heap some distance above the ground. Walter B. Barrows (1912) records a nest 3 feet from the ground in a small balsam fir. Harrington (unpubl. notes) found a nest built 10 feet from the ground in a leaning cedar tree. A. F. Gamer and F. W. Buchanan (1953) found a nest 18 inches from the ground in a bog. All 42 of the nests found during the study in Algonquin Park were on the ground.

Of the nesting habitat in Newfoundland, Peters and Burleigh (1951) write: “They nest in cut-over land, second growth, open woods, brushy thickets and upon hillsides. They choose wet thickets as well as dry ones and may be found anywhere except the thick spruce woods.” A similar nesting habitat in eastern United States and Canada was described by Forbush and May (1939): “Normally this bird breeds in the glades of coniferous woods, preferring northern firs and spruces, but on the hills from which most of the spruce has been cut, it often remains to breed in the waste left by the lumberman.” Toward the southern limit of the breeding range in Ontario, whitethroats nest in isolated patches of conifers, particularly cedar swamps and spruce bogs (Macoun, 1904). In the prairie provinces whitethroats are abundant in the boreal forest to the north, and also occur to the south in the forested valleys of the Saskatchewan River and its tributaries. These valleys are forested with aspens (Populus tremuloides), balsam poplar (P. balsaminifera) and spruce (Picea spp.) (Houston and Street, 1959). In British Columbia, the species breeds in the parkland deciduous forests in the Peace River and Vanderhoof regions (Munro and Cowan, 1947). The forests in these regions are similar to those along the Saskatchewan River.

Of the 42 nests Lowther found in Algonquin Park, 36 were built under blueberry, the remaining 6 under mountain rice grass, sweet fern, beaked hazel, or haircap moss. Of the 36 nests built under blueberry, 28 were under plants 6 to 12 inches high. Two others were under cover less than 6 inches in height, and 13 were under cover greater than 12 inches high. Of the 42 nests 36 were on level ground; of the 6 on sloping ground 2 were placed in the middle of 10-foot embankments.

Structural canopies were present over 34 of the 42 nests. In all cases the canopy was a natural feature of the nesting cover—29 nests were each under a mat of dead fronds of bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) from the previous year, 4 were under clumps of dried mountain rice grass, and 1 was under the tip of a lower branch of a 30-foot white spruce tree. The remaining 8 nests that did not possess a canopy were divided into two groups—those located in cover greater than 12 inches in height, and those built later in the season in cover lacking an overstory of live bracken fern.

Although a canopy of dead bracken was a feature of many nests, in no case was the nest begun under an overstory of live mature bracken. At the time when many early nests were found, however, young growing bracken fronds were evident. As the season progressed and this bracken matured, new nests were restricted to patches of blueberry that did not contain bracken. Thus these later nests had no canopies of dead bracken.

Four characteristics of the larger vegetation within a 50-foot radius of the nest sites were notable. First, there was usually one large object or group of objects, a tree, shrub, stump, or log, close to each nest, and a positive correlation between the height of this object and its distance from the nest. In other words, the nest is positioned on the ground at a definite angle from the top of the nearest large object, which may provide a lookout point for the bird before it flies down to the nest.

The other three characteristics refer to the amount of cover afforded by the objects about the nest site, and the number of feet of edge around them. To measure those, a circle of 50-foot radius centered about the nest was divided into five annular rings, each 10 feet wide. The percent of cover, the number of feet of edge per square foot of total area, and the number of feet of edge per square foot of cover were measured separately for each of the five concentric areas. Measurements within a 10-foot radius about random points were made to show conditions in the general habitat for comparison with nest sites. Comparisons were also made between these same characteristics surrounding the nest sites of white-throats, song sparrows, and slate-colored juncos, all of which nested in the same general area.

The data showed that the average amount of cover within the 10-foot radius about sites of white-throat nests is similar to that within the general habitat in which the species nests, but the variation in the cover values about the nest sites is much less than that within the rest of the habitat. Also, the values for sites is intermediate between values for the open sites of song sparrow nests and the dense sites of slate-colored junco nests.

The amount of edge about objects within the 10-foot radius of nest sites of white-throats is significantly greater than the amounts of edge in the general nesting habitat of this species. Furthermore, it was found to be greater than that about sites of song sparrow and slate-colored junco nests.

Finally, measurements of the number of feet of edge per unit area of cover (which is a measure of the dispersion or arrangement of objects) showed that although the dispersion of objects within the 10-foot radius did not differ from the average dispersion in the rest of the nesting habitat, there was much less variation than that existing in the rest of the habitat. Comparison of this character for nest sites of the three species of sparrows studied showed that white-throats tend to select nest sites in areas exhibiting a degree of clumping of objects intermediate between the singly arranged objects about song sparrow nests and the dense clumping about junco nests.

Thus white-throated sparrows apparently select their nest sites in relation to the amount and dispersion of the nearby cover. As the species chooses conditions intermediate between the open areas in which song sparrows nest and the dense woodland in which juncos nest, the nesting habitat may be described as forest edge.

Eggs: The white-throated sparrow lays from 4 to 6 slightly glossy eggs. They are ovate with some tending toward elongate ovate. The ground is creamy, bluish, or greenish white, and heavily marked with speckles, spots, and blotches of reddish browns such as “natal brown,” “Verona brown,” “Mars brown,” “russet,” and “chestnut.” They vary considerably, often the ground is entirely obscured giving the egg the appearance of being light brown with cloudings and spottings of the darker browns; others may show a considerable amount of the greenish ground with bold blotches of the dark browns, and on these, undermarkings of “pale neutral gray” may be seen. The eggs are practically indistinguishable from those of the white-crowned sparrow except that they average slightly smaller. The measurements of 50 eggs average 21.0 by 15.4 millimeters. The eggs showing the four extremes measure 23.3 by 15.1, 21.6 by 16.8, 18.8 by 14.7, and 21.3 by 14.2 millimeters.

The average of 41 clutches found over a two-year period in Algonquin Park was 4.1 with a range of 3 to 5 eggs. Houston and Street (1959) report an exceptional clutch of 7 eggs from Cumberland House, Saskatchewan. A few observations on renests in Algonquin Park showed no change in clutch size with time of year. Two observations of females carrying nesting material after the first eggs were laid suggest that egg-laying starts before the nest is completed.

Incubation: Only the female white-throated sparrow incubates, as many authors (e.g. Knight, 1908; Forbush and May, 1939) have reported, and which our observations on color-banded birds in Algonquin Park confirmed. One egg is laid per day until the clutch is complete, but it is not known when incubation begins. Five observations of nests in Algonquin Park suggest that the eggs are laid early in the morning.

Once incubation has started, it is possible to approach to within a few feet—in some cases 2 or 3 feet—of the incubating bird, before she takes flight. Unless the observer stops or vigorously disturbs the vegetation, the female may remain on the nest. Once flushed she either flies directly to the nearest clump of bushes, or runs along the ground before flying. Usually she remains quiet for about 30 seconds, and then begins scolding with very fine, high-pitched chips, which are gradually replaced with louder, metallic ones. The louder notes attract the attention of the male, if he has not already been alerted, and he begins chipping. During most of this performance, the birds remain concealed in the vegetation.

The reactions of the parent birds become more intense as incubation progresses. The female is less inclined to leave the nest when a storm or rain shower approaches and if flushed, she returns almost the moment the intruder leaves the immediate area. Similar behavior has been observed late in the evening.

It is not known whether the male white-throat feeds the female when she is on the nest. Observations at two nests suggest that he may join the female at the nest on the day the eggs hatch. The significance of this is not understood.

The incubation period for the white-throated sparrow has been given by Knight (1908), Burns (1915), Forbush and May (1939) and Peters and Burleigh (1951) as 12 to 14 days. In the Algonquin Park study Lowther estimated the incubation period to be 11 to 13 days.

Young: The young hatch almost naked, with only small tufts of clove brown down on the dorsal tract of the head, body, and wings. The eyes are sealed shut and open 3 or 4 days later. There is no information on the development of feathers in the various tracts. By the time the young leave the nest, the body and wings are fairly well feathered, and the tail feathers are about one quarter to one third erupted from their sheaths. Tufts of down remain on the ends of some of the head and back feathers for as long as a week after the birds have left the nest.

By the fifth day after hatching, the young birds begin to show signs of fear toward humans, suggesting that at this time they are totally imprinted on the parent birds. Usually the female bird broods the nestlings. Only once was a male seen brooding the young at Algonquin; he was flushed from the nest just before a thunderstorm broke.

Observations on 12 nests in Algonquin Park in 1959 and 1960 indicate that the nestlings leave the nest between 7 and 12 days after hatching, with 8 or 9 days being most common, and that they are able to fly within 2 or 3 days after leaving the nest. The exact time they become independent of parental feeding is not known. Both parents feed the young in the nest, and continue to do so after they have left it. When eventually the brood moves beyond the territorial boundaries, only the female accompanies them, the male remaining on his territory.

Of the 28 nests Lowther found in Algonquin Park prior to June 8 in 1959 and 1960, 22 survived to hatching. The eggs in all 22 nests hatched on either June 7 or June 8 in both years. Ten of these 22 nests were lost through predation, but fledged young left the remaining 12 nests between June 15 and June 20.

Although white-throats commonly renest after the loss of the first nest, they rarely rear more than one brood per season. Observations on some 50 pairs showed at least 16 that lost their first brood renested, and one pair renested after two failures. Yet some evidence suggests that occasionally white-throats do attempt a second brood. Lainevool (field notes) saw a color-banded female carrying nesting material after the first brood had been out of the nest about 10 days, but the second nest was never located. During this interval, the first brood remained with the male. L. de K. Lawrence (in litt.) reports a known second brood at Rutherglen, Ontario.

Plumages and molts: Jonathan Dwight, Jr., (1900) calls the natal down “pale clove-brown” and describes the juvenal plumage as “Above, chestnut-brown, darkest on the head, streaked with dull black, median line and superciliary line olive gray buff tinged, the feathers of the back edged with buff. Wings and tail deep olive brown, the coverts and tertiaries chestnut edged and bull tipped, the secondaries and rectrices edged with paler brown, the primaries with brownish white; edge of wing white. Below, dull white, washed with buff on throat and sides and thickly streaked with clove brown, the whiter chin merely flecked, the abdomen and crissum unmarked. Bill slaty brown, feet pinkish buff, both darker when older.”

The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt. In Algonquin Park in 1959, this molt started on some individuals during the last week of July, and most birds were in molt between August 15 and August 20. By the end of this month, most of the young birds were indistinguishable from adults. According to Dwight, and from our observations on banded birds in Algonquin Park, the body feathers and wing coverts are replaced, but not the wing and tail feathers.

In the first winter plumage the arrangement of black and brown on the lateral crown areas changes to black anteriorly grading into a mixture of brown and black toward the neck. The median crown stripe may remain the same olive gray as in the juvenal plumage, but usually it becomes lighter tan. A small percentage of young birds in winter plumage have the median crown stripe white (11 of 209 museum specimens examined). The superciliary line is yellow in front of the eye and light tan behind. Pale yellow appears on the edge of the wing. The throat patch is white or dull white edged with black, and within the patch two black malar lines extend posteriorly from the lower edge of each side of the lower mandible. Dwight describes the lower throat and breast as “ashy gray obscurely vermiculated with clove-brown, * * * Abdomen white, the flanks and crissum washed with wood-brown and duskily streaked.” Some individuals acquire a central breast spot.

The nuptial plumage is acquired by a partial prenuptial molt that begins in late March or early April while the birds are still on the wintering grounds. Most birds complete the molt by late April, although a few birds caught in Algonquin Park early in May 1960 were in the last stages of the molt. The extent of the prenuptial molt varies among individuals, but it generally involves feathers of the head, throat, breast, and flanks; also the middle two rectrices and inner three secondaries are sometimes replaced.

From studies of 706 museum specimens and of 342 live birds breeding in Algonquin Park and sexed by cloacal protuberance (Wolfson, 1952), Lowther (1961, 1962) has shown that the white-throated sparrow is a polymorphic species. The two basic types differ essentially in the color of the median crown stripe, being either white-striped or tan-striped, and both types occur in both sexes. Associated with this dimorphism of the median crown stripe are other color variants. Although the plumage patterns of both types are similar to those of young birds in the first winter plumage, color intensities differ on different parts of the body. Regardless of sex, the white-striped birds are generally brighter colored and less streaked; they have more black on the lateral crown areas, less streaking on a wider and grayer chest band, less intense black on the malar markings of the white throat patch, and brighter yellow on the superciliary stripe; also they tend to have longer wing chords than do tan-striped individuals. A central breast spot occurs more frequently in the tan-striped birds.

Tan-striped adults are indistinguishable from the majority of immature birds in the first winter plumage.

Every one of 45 immature birds kept in captivity during the winter of 1961: 62, including individuals of both types, underwent a prenuptial molt during the spring, particularly of the head and anterior body regions. Two additional birds banded as juveniles in 1959 were retrapped as adults in 1960; one was then a white-striped female, the other a tan-striped female. These observations indicate that the white-striped plumage may be attained in the first prenuptial molt.

Of the birds banded as adults in Algonquin Park in 1959, 1960, and 1961, 46 individuals of both types were recaptured in subsequent years for a total of 56 recaptures. Each of these birds showed the same color in later years as when it was first banded, most notably a tan-striped male banded in 1959 and recaptured in 1962. Similarly Forbush (1929), Hervey Brackbill (1954), and J. T. Nichols (1954, 1957) report banded individuals that retained their dull (tan) coloration after 2, 2 and 3, and 6% years. Thus the two color types are permanent and do not change from one nuptial plumage to the next.

Adult white-throats undergo a complete postnuptial molt. The data from banded birds in Algonquin Park suggest that a few birds begin molting in late July, but the majority start in early August. Most adult birds undergo their postnuptial molt at the same time the young go through their postjuvenal molt. As the adult molt is more extensive than that of the immature birds, it extends over a longer period.

The winter plumage of adult birds differs little from the nuptial plumage except in the head pattern. Some birds retain the white-striped coloration into the winter plumage, but most white-striped individuals tend to have the median crown stripe and posterior superciliary line tinged with buff. The plumage in other regions is not changed appreciably. The tan-striped birds show no apparent change in plumages.

Comparisons of plumages of the white-throated sparrow with those of other related species of Zonotrichia give some insight into the nature of the color polymorphism of the white-throat (Lowther, MS.). Within each of the white-crowned, golden-crowned, and Harris’ sparrow groups, the first winter plumages are uniformly colored and characterized by the presence of brown and tan (or gray and tan) and the absence of black and white (or gray) in the head pattern. This is unlike the first winter plumage of the white-throat, which has black as well as tan and brown in the head pattern. Adults of species of Zonotrichia other than the white-throat, and including races of the South American Z. capensis, are typified by a black and white or black and gray head pattern similar to that of the white-striped type of the white-throated sparrow.

Thus the white-striped color type of the white-throat represents the typical adult nuptial plumage of the species, and the tan-striped type represents the first winter plumage. The coloration of the plumage is unusual for the genus in that it combines the black of the adult with the brown and tan of the typical first winter plumage. The tanstriped adult plumage is, therefore, a retention of the first winter plumage through subsequent molts.

Food: White-throated sparrows feed on both plant and animal matter. Sylvester Judd (1901) examined the contents of 217 stomachs collected during every month except June. From these he reported:

The food for the year, as a whole * * * consists of 19 percent animal matter and 81 percent vegetable matter. Of the vegetable food, 3 percent is grain, 50 percent weed seed, and the remainder chiefly wild fruit * * *

Some grass seed is consumed, particularly seeds of such troublesome species as pigeon-grass, crab-grass and other panicurns, and Johnson grass. This element forms about 5 percent of the total food and is taken chiefly during September, when it amounts to 24 percent of the food of the month. A little amaranth and lamb’s quarters are eaten; and gromwell, chickweed, wood sorrel, sedge, violet and sheep sorrel are all represented in the diet. But the principal weed seeds found in the stomachs are those of ragweed and different polygonums. * * * The two weeds form 25 percent of the food for the year, of which ragweed furnishes 9 percent, and the polygonums 16 percent. During October, ragweed alone constitutes 45 percent of the month’s food. * * *

The insect food resembles that of many other species in general character, but some interesting differences appear when it is reviewed in detail. Hymenoptera constitute 6 percent of the year’s food; Coleoptera, 5 percent; Heteroptera and Diptera, taken together, 3 percent; and Lepidoptera, 3 percent, the customary quota of spiders, millipedes, and snails supply the remaining 2 percent of the animal food.

The following items may be added to Judd’s list: fruits of dogwood, sumach, wild grapes, persimmon, smilax, cedar, and privet (Skinner, 1928); elder, mountain ash, blueberry, blackberry, wild cherry and high bush cranberry fruits (Roberts, 1932); and greenbriar, spice bush, wild sarsaparilla, and strawberry fruits (Howell, 1932). Lowther noted that raspberries and bunchberries were important food sources during August in Algonquin Park. White-throats in captivity feed readily on various cereal grains, oranges, tangarines, lettuce, cabbage, and leaves of geraniums.

The foods consumed appear to change with the season. During the winter the birds feed mainly upon weed seeds, small fruits, and occasionally insects which are picked up from the ground. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) reports that “with the approach of spring * * * [the white-throat] resorts to the tops of the tallest oaks and maples to feed upon their buds.” Benjamin Warren (1890) records that in April and May the buds and blossoms of apple, maple, and beech trees are eaten. Milton B. Trautman (1940) reports that “during late April and May, the species ate great quantities of newly formed seeds of such trees as white elm, slippery elm, silver maple and red maple” which the birds obtained directly from the trees.

During the spring and early summer the white-throat becomes more carnivorous, and larval and adult forms of many insects constitute the bulk of the food. In Algonquin Park white-throats were observed feeding on Hymenoptera and Lepidoptera larvae which they gathered from the leaves and branches of trees and shrubs. The young apparently are fed entirely on animal matter. That this change to a carnivorous diet is not totally governed by the abundance of insects and lack of seeds and fruits is evidenced by the failure of white-throats to feed on bread crumbs and grain seeds put out at feeding stations during the summer. Lowther has observed white-throats bypass grain in favor of insect larvae in late May, June, and early July.

After the young have left the nest and are for the most part independent, vegetable matter becomes the major source of food once again.

The manner in which white-throats feed varies to some extent.  Of the method of feeding on the ground, Skinner (1928) writes, “White-throats depend largely upon scratching to uncover food. * * *  they give a triple scuffle with spread feet, and a quick jump backward to throw out the dirt behind them.  At times these birds will scratch for as much as an hour without a pause beyond that necessary to pick up the food.”  When searching for insects in trees, the birds hop along a branch picking up insects, then move to another limb to repeat the performance.  In Algonquin Park Mrs. Lainevool saw an adult white-throat chase and capture an adult dragonfly.  Lowther also noted aerial feeding during the spruce budworm outbreak in New Brunswick in 1953 and 1954.  At the time the adult moths were emerging from their chrysalises, white-throats were often seen chasing and capturing them in flight.

The birds eat only the pulpy parts of the fruits as grapes, blueberries, and bunchberries and do not swallow the skins and large seeds.  The bird picks up the fruit with its bill, squashes it and manipulates the skin back and forth between the mandibles until all the contents are squeezed out before dropping it.  The coarse husks of grains are also rejected, as are the hard parts of some adult insects, such as the wings of beetles and dragonflies.  Large insect larvae are handled in a similar manner, probably  to soften the out cuticle, but the food is swallowed whole.

Field marks: The white-throat is a rather large sparrow, with its  back striped in reddish and dark brown; crown striped either black and with or black, brown and tan; throat patch white or dirty white, well defined from the gray or gray-tan of the throat and  upper breast.  The two most distinguishing features of this sparrow are the white throat patch and the yellow superciliary line in front of the eye.  Young birds are usually, but not always, somewhat duller than the adults.

Voice:  The song of the white-throated sparrow is not likely to be confused with that of any other bird in its range.  It consists of pure whistled notes, generally steady in pitch and arranged in an definite pattern.  As Elon H. Eaton (1914) states, “In New England, it has been likened to the words ‘Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody’ or ‘Sow wheat Peeverly, Peeverly, Peeverly,’ but farther north he is supposed to say, “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.’”  These paraphrases, repeated in so many books, indicate one pattern of the song which, as we shall see, is no longer the commonest one.

Donald J. Borror and William W. Gunn (1965) studied songs of 711 white-throated sparrows, 433 of which were recorded. Most of the birds were on their breeding territories from Massachusetts and New Brunswick to Minnesota and British Columbia, but 59 were on migration in New York, North Carolina, and Ohio. Most recordings were analysed with a Vibralyzer sound spectrograph; others were studied by listening to them at reduced speed. These songs were composed of the following types of notes: notes lasting more than a fifth of a second and relatively steady in pitch, similar notes beginning with a shorter upslur (rarely, a downslur), triplets (occasionally couplets) about as long as the preceding notes but more or less divided into three short notes usually of about equal length, and occasionally other types including short distinct notes less than a tenth of a second in duration. The pitch of steady notes in the whole sample ranged from 2,150 to 6,500 cycles per second (cps) and from 1,500 to 6,600 cps including upslurs and downslurs. Lowther and Falls recorded a bird with notes ranging from 7,000 to 10,000 cps but this bird also gave unusually high-pitched calls and was doubtless abnormal. Borror and Gunn found that the spread in pitch between notes in a single song might be as great as an octave, but averaged less than half this range.

A white-throat’s song nearly always has at least one change of pitch, and there may be as many as three. Owing no doubt to the quality of the notes and the repetition of the melody, many authors have described the song as musical and A. V. Arlton (1949) uses musical symbols to depict the pattern. Borror and Gunn state, “Songs of the white-throated sparrow are relatively musical, but the birds do not stay on key very well, and the pitch changes in their songs do not follow our musical scale.”

Most songs begin with one or more steady notes and end with a series of similar triplets. Aretas A. Saunders (MS.) provided information on the number of triplets and the length of songs based on notations of 106 songs. His data are bracketed after those of Borror and Gunn (1965), who found from 0 to 7 [0 to 10] triplets with an average of 1.8 [4.41; song length varied from 1.2 to 6.1 [1.6 to 7.0] seconds and averaged 2.9 [3.7] seconds. Thus, the length of the song is quite variable and this is true even of songs of an individual. If a bird is disturbed it may omit some or all of the final triplets.

Songs of white-throats vary in a number of respects. Borror and Gunn describe 15 patterns based on the types of notes present and pitch changes through the song. Some patterns were much commoner than others and the proportionate representation of the different patterns varied geographically. The four patterns making up over 96 percent of the songs they studied are described here. The commonest type, accounting for 62 percent of the songs, begins with a long steady note followed by a triplet, another steady note usually upslurred at the beginning, and a few more triplets; the second and third notes are on about the same pitch and distinctly higher than the first note; the remaining notes are on the same pitch or slightly lower than the third note. The usual form of this song could be paraphrased “Poor Peabody, Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” using the familiar phrases. Songs of this type were abundant throughout the range of the species. A similar song in which the upslur of the third note in the foregoing pattern is replaced by a very short but separate note, accounted for 7 percent of the sample. It was found mainly east of Ontario, where it accounted for between a quarter and a third of the songs. Another common pattern, making up 10 percent of the sample, also resembles the first one except that the third and remaining notes are pitched distinctly lower than the second note but higher than the first note. Like the first pattern, it was widely distributed. The fourth common pattern is rather different from the others, beginning with two steady notes at about the same pitch, then dropping to a third steady note considerably lower in pitch, followed by a series of triplets at about the same or a slightly lower pitch than the third. This song accounted for 19 percent of the sample and was uncommon east of Ontario.

Most of the 11 rarer patterns are somewhat similar to those already described. Seven birds in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, began their songs with a series of 7 to 10 short discrete notes followed by longer notes like those in the other songs. L. L. Snyder (19 28b) reported a pattern of this sort as common in the Lake Nipigon region of Ontario in the summers of 1923 and 1924. W. W. Gunn did not find it in Ontario west of Lake Superior in 1956 and 1960. There is some indication that this pattern may be disappearing as Gunn found it to be much rarer in Riding Mountain Park in 1960 than in 1956.

It appears that the relative abundance of the different song types in an area may change over a period of years. This might account for the scarcity of the pattern referred to as the common one in many of the older books: the song that begins with two steady notes followed by a series of triplets. Borror and Gunn found only three songs like this, whereas about a quarter of those A. A. Saunders noted (Borror and Gunn) in the Adirondacks in 1925 and 1926 were of this type. W. W. Gunn however did not find it in the Adirondacks in 1960. In view of the many careful observers such as Saunders who have described this pattern and the extensive recent samples of Borror and Gunn, it seems reasonable to conclude that what was once a common song, at least in the Northeast, has almost disappeared.

The principal form of geographic variation in white-throat songs lies in the relative incidence of the various song patterns just described. It is usually easy to assign songs of individual birds to one of these patterns, but differences are recognizable among songs of the same pattern. Borror and Gunn (1965) state that, “songs of each pattern varied in the types of notes in the songs, the pitch of the first note, the amount of pitch change between notes, the length of the various notes, the length of the song and the number of notes it contained, and the relative loudness of different notes in the song.” As already mentioned, songs of a given individual may vary considerably in length, but in other respects they vary much less than the songs of different birds. Thus songs of individual birds can often be recognized even from others of the same pattern, and the characteristic features appear to be retained from year to year. D. J. Borror was able to recognize seven of nine birds occupying a 30-acre point at Hog Island, Maine, by their songs, and the songs of the other two proved to be different when studied with the sound spectrograph. Several birds occupying the same general area from year to year had songs of the same pattern and pitch characteristics each year. Although not individually marked, they were probably the same birds. The experience of Falls and his students with songs of individual birds has been similar.

To determine whether white-throats were capable of recognizing different individuals by song, Ronald Brooks (unpublished data) played recorded songs of neighboring and distant individuals to males in their territories. Reactions were stronger to the strange songs, even if they were of the same pattern as the neighbor’s song.

About three percent of the birds Borror and Gunn studied had two songs usually of different patterns. Harold Axtell noted the same phenomenon and writes (in litt.), “Usually the two songs are very different and one is given much less frequently than the other.” Though an observer is apt to assume that the occasional quite different song comes from another bird, close observation might show this to be a more common situation than the above percentage indicates.

In order to determine which characteristics of the white-throat’s song were important in species recognition, Falls (1963) played 15 artificial songs, generated by means of an audio-oscillator, to a large sample of males on their breeding territories. The test songs varied in the character of the notes, pitch, pattern of pitch change, and the length of the notes and intervals between them. Birds responded to a normal song by giving songs and calls and approaching the speaker. The importance of the different characteristics was judged by comparing the responses to test songs with responses to normal songs and to those of other species. As a song consisting only of continuous notes elicited normal responses, it was concluded that other types of sounds were not essential for species recognition. Similarly, variations in loudness between notes were shown to be unimportant, but songs that fell partly or wholly above or below the range of pitch Borror and Gunn (1965) found in their sample elicited very weak responses. Falls summarized the results of his experiments as follows: “To be effective, a white-throated sparrow’s song must consist of unvarying pure tones within a certain range of pitch. Less important is the presence of notes of different pitch arranged in a certain pattern. The notes should be of a certain minimum length, and the intervals between notes should not exceed a certain maximum.” This study dealt only with reactions of territorial males to song, and properties of song that appeared to be unimportant in this context may serve other functions.

To determine which characteristics of song are important for individual recognition, Brooks and Falls (unpublished data) played altered neighbor’s songs to territorial males. The birds responded normally (see above) to songs altered in length, but strongly to songs altered in pitch, which they apparently no longer recognized as neighbors’ songs. Thus pitch appears to be more important than timing for individual recognition.

Regarding inheritance of song, Borror and Gunn (1965) state, “Certain general features are common to all the White-throat song patterns we found (clear, whistled notes steady in pitch or nearly so, usually one or two pitch changes through the song, and the song ending in triplets), so it may be assumed that these features are hereditary.” They suggest further that the different patterns are learned, and that the 11 uncommon patterns may be inaccurate copies of the four more common patterns.

Bruce Thorneycroft (unpublished data) raised a sample of nestling white-throats in isolation where they could not hear songs of adults. In the songs these birds developed none of the characteristics Borror and Gunn list was invariably present, and none of the songs contained triplets. This experimental evidence implies that the inherited basis of song in this species may be less than Borror and Gunn suggest.

In view of the unusual plumage variation in this species (see Plumages), it is of interest to consider the singing behavior of the various color types. No differences were noted between songs of white-striped and tan-striped males, and a recording of each elicited similar responses from both sexes. White-striped males, however, sing more often than tan-striped males both spontaneously and in response to recorded songs. In five-minute counts of spontaneous singing early in the morning, Lowther (MS.) found an average of 5.27 songs for 55 white-striped males compared with 1.34 for 44 tan-striped males. White-striped females occasionally sing early in the breeding season before nest building begins. Tan-striped females were not heard singing in the field, but Thorneycroft reports that, in a sample of hand-raised birds in the laboratory, three tan-striped females sang occasionally, but not so much as white-striped females. Lowther observed the responses to recorded songs by females of both types, which had been sexed by cloacal protuberance and color banded. He found that all of 33 white-striped females responded by singing, but none of 37 tan-striped females sang. Songs of females were of the patterns already described, but the pitch of the notes tended to waver and the songs were often cut short. Territorial males responded less strongly to a single recording of a female’s song than to recorded songs of males.

White-throated sparrows usually sing from coniferous trees. While studying territorial behavior in Algonquin, Make Lainevool (unpublished data) noted that each male sang mainly from two to four song posts, usually 20 to 40 feet above ground in the outer branches of a white spruce. White pines were used occasionally, but birches and aspens seemed to be avoided. A bird might give a few songs from other places, but often sang up to 50 times in rapid succession from a regular song post. Birds occasionally sang from a stump or small tree but were never observed singing on the ground. However, Knight (1908) states that “the singer perches in the bushes or on the ground.” During migration Falls has heard songs that seemed to originate on or near the ground.

A white-throat may sing in a variety of positions but usually perches on a branch with its back and tail in line and at an angle of about 45 degrees from the horizontal. When singing loudly, the bird throws its head back and its tail quivers noticeably in the rhythm of the song.

Early in the breeding season the white-throated sparrow may be heard singing at any time of the day or night, though much less frequently at night than during the day. Lowther noted that a bird in New Brunswick sang two or three times an hour when the moon was full but only three or four times a night when the sky was overcast.

J. B. Falls counted songs in 5-minute periods during the day, once a week from mid-May to the end of August 1955. From May 14th until June 25th, white-throats began to sing steadily about 3:30 am., E.S.T. They were often the first passerines to be heard. The number of songs increased to a maximum about 4:00 a.m. and then decreased. A second peak of singing sometimes occurred about 6:30 a.m. after which singing was much less frequent. These peaks resulted mainly from more birds singing rather than from a shortening of the intervals between the songs of individual birds, which were usually about 15 seconds. Birds sang occasionally in the afternoon, and a short burst of singing about 8:00 p.m. was followed by a rapid decrease.  Regular singing began in the morning and ended in the evening at a light intensity of about 10 foot-candles.  In mid-July singing was more general throughout the day but by mid-August only a few songs were heard at 4:30 a.m. and 7:00 p.m.  On August 25th no birds sang.  The increase in song in mid-July already mentioned was also observed by Dayton Stoner (1932) in the Oneida Lake region of New York and by Lainevool, who noted that mated birds sang more when their young became independent.  She also observed that unmated males defended territories sang more than mated males during the breeding season.

Lainevool (unpublished data) investigated the effects of weather on singing by counting songs for 10 minutes at 7:30 a.m. in an area where 12 birds could be heard.  Between June 2 and July 27, 1959 she made 37 counts.  Although the results were not conclusive, they showed the birds tend to sing more on sunny than on cloudy days, on warm rather than cold days, and during high rather than low atmospheric pressures.  There was very little song when the temperature was below 50° F.

A number of authors have reported hearing the primary song of this species during migration on the wintering grounds.  A. A. Saunders (1948) noted fall singing in southern Connecticut on the average from October 6th to November 6th with the extreme dates from September 26th to November 29th.  He states that “Fall songs are not commonly perfect and full.  They are shortened or the pitch of the last notes is badly flatted.”  George H. Lowery, Jr. (1955) reports that the song is often heard in Louisiana in mid-winter and describes patterns similar to those heard on the breeding grounds.  A. A. Saunders (1947) describing the onset of spring song, reports hearing a white-throat as early as January 10th.  The average date when he first heard regular singing was March 26th, the earliest February 18th, and the latest April 23rd.

Thus far we have discussed the territorial or advertising song of the white-throat.  A good imitation or recording of this song will cause a territorial male to become quite excited and to approach the source of the sound.  This suggests that the song functions as a threat to other males.  As females often respond by giving the precopulatory trill, the song may also be a sexual stimulant to the female (Lowther, MS.).

Bruce Thorneycroft (unpublished date) took young white-throats from the nest and raised several groups in sound isolation.  Their  vocalizations were recorded at intervals beginning in July of the first year.  During the fall and winter these birds tended to give a series of whistling sounds falling and then rising in pitch sometimes ranging over two octaves.  The individual sounds were shorter than those in normal songs, quite variable in pitch, and often included upslurs and downslurs. Some were pure and others were made up of two tones a few hundred cycles apart. Various call notes accompanied these warblings. Subsongs of this type are heard preceding and, to a lesser extent, following the breeding season.

Carl Helms writes (in litt.) that he has heard subsongs given by young and adults during extreme fright. It is not clear whether this refers to the type of subsong described above. He also states that low intensity singing occurs at all periods of the annual cycle and at all times of day. Again it is not clear whether this refers to subsong or to a quiet version of territorial song. We have heard the latter from males responding to recorded songs near the boundaries of their territories.

The white-throated sparrow has several distinct call notes. Some of these are high pitched notes lasting half a second or more. Most commonly heard is the “tseet” (about 8,000 cps) which both sexes give when resting or feeding in migration or on the breeding grounds. It is usually heard when the birds are visually isolated from one another on or near the ground, and appears to be a contact note although it is hard to locate. As it is often heard when the birds are disturbed, it may also serve as a mild warning.

Carl Helms (in litt.) reports hearing similar notes from captive birds. One of these was a “peep” or “tsee” uttered softly by a female after the male’s songs. Jack Hailman (in litt.) describes two other high pitched notes as “eeek” and “eeeee.” He refers to them as “fear notes,” the latter sound being an extreme alarm note or warning of the presence of a predator.

Another sort of note given by white-throats is shorter with the initial consonant hardened. Notes of this type vary from a quiet “tip,” which includes a narrow range of frequencies near 8,000 cps and is difficult to locate, through a series of chipping sounds to a loud “pink” which covers a wider range of frequencies and is easily located. The authors have heard the “tip” from both sexes when perched in dense cover and when there was reason to believe that young were in the vicinity. On two occasions blue jays were disturbing the birds. This note may be given alternately with the “pink” note.

The louder chipping or “pink” notes are also given by both sexes and appear to serve as contact notes, or to express various kinds of excitement or alarm, for they vary considerably in intensity. “Pink” notes are often given when a flock is disturbed or going to roost in dense cover. The most intense notes of this type are heard during agonistic encounters or from the parents when young are disturbed or giving distress calls. These sounds are often accompanied by crest raising and vertical tail flicking.

Finally, the white-throat gives several kinds of repetitive calls. One type is the “Chu-chatter” (Helms) or “Chup-up-up-up,” a series of low-pitched notes (2,000 to 3,000 cps) given by both sexes. This is evidently a threat note and according to Jack P. Hailman may be accompanied by a head-forward threat as when caged birds have an encounter while feeding. It may be given by the male in answer to the song of another male. Lowther has also heard it following the “eeek” note.

A variety of repetitive calls given by both sexes may be described as trills. One type consists of a rapidly uttered series of notes similar to the “tip” note already described. Another type consists of a series of short notes covering a wide range of frequencies (4,000 to 8,000 cps). Trills are occasionally heard when birds are disturbed or in agonistic encounters. Most commonly they are given by the female in answer to the male’s song and may induce approach and mounting by the male (see Courtship). When given intensely by either sex these notes may be accompanied by wing fluttering or vibrations of the tail.

An adult caught in a mist net or held upside down may give a “distress call,” which is a scream of rapidly uttered notes covering a wide range of frequencies sometimes including “pink” notes or snatches of song. Lowther heard this call from a caged white-throat that a snake had seized by the feet. Somewhat similar sounds, although fainter and higher in pitch, are given by young birds if they are handled after 5 or 6 days of age. Distress calls are a powerful stimulant and may attract several pairs of white-throats. The birds typically dash about in the vicinity and eventually settle down a short distance away, uttering “pink” notes. If young birds are giving the distress calls, “pink” notes from the adults tend to quiet them. Occasionally other species will also react to distress calls of white-throats.

Young birds also give other repetitive calls. Shortly after hatching, nestlings give “gaping notes” that consist of a faint, high-pitched buzzing trill. Fledged young, when out of sight of their parents, give short calls that resemble short distress calls but are of lower intensity.

Thorneycroft (unpublished data) found that birds taken from the nest and raised in sound isolation developed notes similar to those already described as “tseet, pink, chup-up, and trills.”

Enemies: Herbert Friedmann (1963) states:

The white-throated sparrow is generally an infrequent host of the brown-headed cowbird, but in southern Quebec it appears to be a regular and not uncommon victim. In the course of nearly 60 years of field observation, Terrill (1961) found the astonishing number of 507 nests of this sparrow within a limited area of southern Quebec; of these, 20, or 4 percent, had been parasitized by the cowbird. * * *

All in all, some 36 records have come to my notice. Apart from southern Quebec, the white-throated sparrow has been found to be victimized in Itaska County, Minnesota, [and] in Michigan, by Alvin R. Cahn (1920, P. 116; 1918, p. 497), and in Wisconsin, by Robbins (1949). Rowan (1922, p. 229) found this sparrow rearing a young cowbird at Indian Bay, Manitoba. Snyder and Logier (1930, pp. 194: 195) found a parasitized nest in York County, Ontario. Harrington and Beaupré collected other parasitized nests in Ontario, which are now in the Royal Ontario Museum. J. D. Carter (1906, p. 32) reported a nest in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Hooper and Hooper (1954) noted a fledgling cowbird being fed by a white-throated sparrow in the Somme district, Saskatchewan. T. E. Randall and A. D. Henderson wrote me of at least seven parasitized nests in Alberta.

Reports of the predation of white-throats by raptors do not appear commonly in the literature. A. C. Bent (1938) described the capture of a white-throat by an eastern pigeon hawk, and the white-throat may well he included in Mr. Bent’s term “various other sparrows” which he lists as food of the peregrine falcon, sparrow hawk, and great horned, screech, barred, long-eared, short-eared, Richardson’s, and saw-whet owls. Lowther watched a short-eared owl chase a white-throated sparrow unsuccessfully at Mills Lake, District of Mackenzie, Sept. 5,1957.

Some mammals are known to raid the nests of small birds. The only mammal suspected of disrupting white-throated sparrow nests in the Algonquin Park study was the red fox, inferred from the condition of two nests found destroyed and the response of a fox to a recording of a white-throat’s distress call.

A number of types of external parasites have been found on whitethroated sparrows. Joseph C. Bequaert (1956) lists three genera of louse flies: Ornithoica vicina, Ornithomyia fringillina and Lynchia amertcana. Only one tick, Ixodes brunneus was reported by R. A. Cooley and G. M. Kohls (1945) as occurring on this species. G. F. Bennett (MS.) reported the larvae of the botfly, Protocalliphora metallica on nestling birds. Bennett (1961) collected a number of black flies, Simulium aureum, S. “latipes,” S. croxtoni, S. rugglesi, and Prosimulium decemarticulatum, five sandflies, Culicoides crepuscularis, C. sphagnumemsis, C. stilobezzioides, C. obsoletus and C. haematopotus, and one mosquito, Aedes canadensis from white-throated sparrows in Algonquin Park.

The internal parasites found in the white-throat can be divided into two major groups: visceral parasites and blood parasites. Three of the visceral parasites are trematodes. E. E. Byrd and J. E. Denton (1950) list Tanaisia zarudryi in the white-throat, and Denton and Byrd (1951) add Zonorchis alveyi and Brachylecithum nanum. R. C. Anderson (1957, 1959) reports two nematodes, Aproctella stoddardi and Diplotriaena thomasi from the body cavity. The blood parasites found in this bird include the nematode Aproctelta stoddardi and the protozoa, Haemoproteus fringilla and Trypanosoma avium (Bennett and Fallis, 1960).

Winter: The main winter range of the white-throated sparrow is in the southern United States from Missouri and Massachusetts to Florida and southern Texas. It occurs casually south to northern Mexico, west to California, north to British Columbia and Newfoundland, and regularly winters in small numbers as far north as southern Ontario.

As most recoveries of banded birds are from North and South Carolina, R. B. Fischer and G. Gill (1946) conclude that “the bulk of the eastern white-throated sparrows winter in these two states. Progressively smaller numbers of wintering birds are encountered as one travels north or south.” However, Lowery (1955) speaks of them as among the commonest winter birds in Louisiana. E. P. Odum (1958) reports on sex and age ratios and fat content of whitethroats killed at a TV tower near Tallahassee, Fla. On the basis of these and similar data gathered on the campus of the University of Georgia, he suggests that “immature or first-year females probably tend to winter farther south than adults in general and males in particular.”

Everywhere on the wintering grounds white-throats are reported to frequent sheltered locations. For example, Lowery (1955) states “They occur in all places where there is shrubbery or other woody vegetation but do not like to venture far into the open. Where there is one of them, there are usually a dozen or more.” In Ontario they are often found singly or in small groups in shrubby ravines or cat-tail marshes, where they apparently do not sing in winter, but often make their presence known by the “tseet” call. However, in the southern part of the winter range, singing is reported by Good and Adkins (1927) and others (see Voice).

In different regions white-throats are found in company with a variety of other species. In Ontario, they occur with song sparrows and other finches. On the Pacific coast Ralph N. Hoffman (1927) reports that they are generally found with golden-crowned or Gambel sparrows. In Alabama Good and Adkins (1927) list many species with which they associate in winter. These authors mention the towhee as roosting with white-throats in underbrush. They found the following species with the white-throat at night in heaps of cut pine branches: chipping sparrow, vesper sparrow, slate-colored junco, and American pipit.

DISTRIBUTION

Range: Southern Yukon, Mackenzie, northern Ontario, central Quebec, southern Labrador, and Newfoundland, south to southern California, southern Texas, the Gulf coast, and northern Florida.

Breeding range: The white-throated sparrow breeds from southern Yukon (Watson Lake), central Mackenzie (Fort Norman, Sifton Lake), northern Manitoba (Churchill), northern Ontario (Fort Sutton, Severn River), central western and southeastern Quebec (Fort George, St. Pauls River), southern Labrador (Goose Bay), and northern Newfoundland (St. Anthony) south to central British Columbia (Kispiox Valley, Nulki Lake, Charlie Lake), central Alberta (North Edmonton, Battle River area), southern Saskatchewan (Conquest, McLean), central northern North Dakota (Turtle Mountains), central Minnesota (Cambridge), northern Wisconsin (Oconto County), central Michigan (Clare and Lapeer Counties), northern Ohio (Ottawa and Ashtabula counties), northern West Virginia (Terra Alta), northeastern Pennsylvania (Pocono Lake), southeastern New York (Tannerville), northwestern Connecticut (Litcbfield), southern New Hainpsbire (Mount Monadnock), Massachusetts (Weston, Milton, Raynham), and Rhode Island (West Greenwich); non-breeding birds summer casually south to Arkansas, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Winter range: Winters from northern California (sparsely; Del Norte County southward), southern Arizona (sparsely; Tucson), central Colorado (Denver), southeastern Nebraska (Lincoln), eastern Iowa (Muscatine, Davenport, Clinton), southern Wisconsin (Madison, Milwaukee), southern Michigan (Kalamazoo, Marshall, Ann Arbor, Detroit), southern Ontario (London, Toronto), central New York (Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Schenectady), southern Vermont (Bennington, Brattleboro), coastal New Hampshire, and southern Maine (Mount Desert Island) south to southern New Mexico (Rio Grande Bird Reserve), southern Texas (Brownsville. Houston), the Gulf coast, and northern Florida (Gainesville, Enterprise); north casually to British Columbia (Grindrod, Vernon), North Dakota (Fargo), Manitoba (Winnipeg), western and eastern Ontario (Port Arthur, Ottawa), Quebec (Montreal, Lennoxville, Quebec), New Brunswick (Scotch Lake), Nova Scotia (Cole Harbour, Wolfville), and Newfoundland (St. John’s) and south to Nuevo Le6n (Linares), northern Tamaulipas (Matamoros), and southern Florida (Cape Sable), and Bermuda. In migration, ~vest rarely to western Washington (Bellevue, Yakiima), and coastal California.

Casual records: Accidental on Baffin Island (West Foxe Islands). Guadalupe Island, Outer Hebrides, and in England.

Migration: Early dates of spring arrival are: District of Columbia: March 11. Maryland: Baltimore county, March 5; Laurel, March 16. Pennsylvania: State College. April 2 (average, April 24); Beaver, April 10; Renovo, April 13 (average of 26 years, April 22). New York: New York City, April 7. Connecticut: New Haven, April 12; Portland, April 13. Rhode Island: South Auburn, April 15. Massachusetts: Essex County, April 11. Vermont: Shaftsbury, April 15. New Hampshire: New Hampton, April 13 (median of 21 years, April 19); Concord, April 23. Maine: Bangor, April 6; Lake Umbagog, May 10. Quebec: Montreal area, April 15 (median of 7 years, April 19). New Brunswick: Fredericton, April 13. Nova Scotia: Windsor, April 16. Prince Edward Island: Mount Herbert, April 18. Newfoundland: Gander, May 7. Tennessee: Nashville, April 22. Illinois: Urbana, median of 20 years, March 19; Murphysboro, March 20; Chicago, March 25 (average of 16 years, April 15). Indiana: Wayne County, April 3 (median of 17 years, April 17). Ohio: central Ohio, March 17 (median of 40 years, April 1); Oberlin, March 21 (median of 19 years, April 16). Michigan: Detroit area, April 2 (mean of 10 years, April 12); Battle Creek, April 19 (median of 35 years, April 25). Ontario: Southmag, April 18. Iowa: Davenport, March 17. Wisconsin: Dane County, March 31. Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, March 20 (average of 15 years, April 19). Oklahoma: Payne County, March 14; Cleveland County, April 4. Nebraska: Stapleton, March 21; Red Cloud, April 20 (average of 11 years, May 1). South Dakota: Yankton, March 22; Union County, April 11; Sioux Falls, April 18 (average of 5 years, April 26). North Dakota: Brandon, April 5; Cass County, April 22 (average, April 26); Lower Souris Refuge, April 25; Jamestown, April 28. Manitoba: East Kildonan, March 22; Treesbank, April 18 (average of 22 years, April 28). Saskatchewan: McLean, April 20. Mackenzie: Kennicott, May 14. Wyoming: Torrington. May 13. Montana: Billings, May 1. Alberta-Lake Mamawi, April 25. Oregon: Benton County, March 14; Salem, April 22. British Columbia: Tupper Creek, May 7; Bowron, May 11.

Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Tallahassee. May 16; Pensacola, May 3; Gainesville, April 30. Georgia: Atlanta, May 29; Spring Hill May 20. South Carolina: Charleston, May 17 (median of 7 years, May 14). North Carolina: Wilmington, May 31; Raleigh, May 19 (average of 9 years, May 12). Virginia: Lexington, May 25. District of Columbia: June 14 (average of 32 years, May 22). Maryland: Anne Arundel County, June 15; Laurel, June 10 (median of 6 years, May 27). Pennsylvania: Hartstown, May 29. New Jersey: Englewood, May 24. New York: Long Island, May 27. Connecticut: New Haven, May 25. Rhode Island: Kingston, May 16. Massachusetts: Concord, May 30. New Hampshire-Concord, May 25. Louisiana: Baton Rouge, May 6. Mississippi: Rosedale, May 24 (mean of 37 years, May 12). Arkansas: Benton County, June 12; Fayetteville, May 16. Tennessee: Nashville, May 31 (median of 30 years, May 13); Knox County, May 14; Athens, May 10 (average of 7 years, May 4). Kentucky: Bowling Green, May 17. Missouri: St. Louis, May 30 (median of 15 years, May 12). Illinois: Chicago. June 1 (average of 16 years, May 26); Urbana, May 26 (median of 20 years, May 19). Indiana: Wayne County, May 30 (median of 17 years, May 17). Ohio: central Ohio, June 11 (median of 40 years, May 24); Oberlin, May 22 (median of 19 years, May 18). Michigan: Detroit area, May 29 (mean of 10 years, May 24); Battle Creek, May 24 (median of 10 years, May 10). Iowa: Sioux City, May 27. Texas: Austin, May 2; Sinton, April 29 (median of 7 years, April 9). Oklahoma: Cleveland County, May 5. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, May 20 (median of 11 years, May 9). Nebraska: Dakota County, May 27. South Dakota: Faulkton, May 30; Sioux Falls, May 26. North Dakota: Cass County, May 26 (average, May 23). New Mexico: Los Mamos, May 10. Arizona: Tempe, April 21. Colorado: Yuina, May 3. Wyoming: Torrington, May 13. California: Inverness, May 22; Santa Barbara, May 1. Oregon: Clackamas County, April 27. Washington: Seattle, May 9.

Early dates of fall arrival are: Washington: Seattle, October 7. Oregon: Central Point, October 6. California: Sebastopol, September 25; Fair Oaks, October 6. Montana: Fortine, August 23. Idaho-Moscow, October 7. Wyoming: Green River, September 23; Sheridan, September 26. Colorado: Fort Morgan, September 19, Denver, October 5. Arizona: mouth of Verde River, October 29. New Mexico: Los Alamos, October 29. North Dakota: Jamestown, September 4; Cass County, September 5 (average, September 10). South Dakota: Aberdeen, September 9; Sioux Falls, September 24. Nebraska: Lincoln, September 27 (average of 13 years, October 8). Kansas: northeastern Kansas, September 27 (median of 9 years, October 19)~ Oklahoma: Payne County, October 7. Texas: Austin, October21; Sinton, October30 (median of 5 years, November11). Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, August 27 (average of 11 years, September 19). Wisconsin: Wausau, August 15; Forest and Langlade Counties, August 28. Iowa: Sigourney, September 28; Sioux City, average of 11 years, September 30. Michigan: Detroit area, September 3 (mean of 10 years, September 13); Battle Creek, September 20 (median of 16 years, September 29). Ohio: central Ohio, September 12 (median of 40 years, September 25). Indiana: Wayne County, September20 (median of 16 years, September 28). Illinois: Chicago, August 30 (average of 16 years, September 8). Missouri: St. Louis, September 10 (median of 15 years, September 28). Kentucky: Bowling Green, September 23. Tennessee: Nashville, September 16; Knox County, October 3. Arkansas: Little Rock, October 10; Fayetteville, October 12. Mississippi: Rosedale, October 13 (mean of 35 years, November 3). Louisiana: Baton Rouge, September 28. New Hampshire: Concord, September 18. Vermont: Shaftsbury, September 11. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vineyard, September 5 (median of 7 years, September 24); Belmont, September 6. Rhode Island: Jamestown, September 12. Connecticut: New Haven, September 13; Portland, September 15. New York: New York City, August 15 and September 9. New Jersey: Cape May, September 22. Pennsylvania: State College, September 10; Renovo, September 10. Maryland: Worcester County, September 13; Laurel, September 20 (median of 6 years, September 23). District of Columbia: September 14 (average of 36 years, October 8). North Carolina: Chapel Hill, September 29; Raleigh, October 4 (average of 19 years, October 16). South Carolina: Charleston, October 2 (median of 8 years, October 11). Georgia: Atlanta October 5. Alabama: Talladega, October 2; Auburn, October 3. Florida: northwestern Florida, October 10; Leon County, October 17.

Late dates of fall departure are: British Columbia: Saanich, October 21. Washington: Yakima, November 18. Oregon: Blame, October 25. Alberta: Glenevis, October 2. Montana: Fortine, October 18. Saskatchewan: Eastend, October 14. Manitoba: Killarney, November 4; Treesbank, October 30 (average of 23 years, October 11). North Dakota: Cass County, October 21 (average, October 17). South Dakota: Aberdeen, November 7; Dunbar, November 16. Nebraska: Lincoln, average of 11 years, October 31. Oklahoma: Cleveland County, November 21. Minnesota: Minneapolis-St. Paul, November 15 (average of 6 years, October 28). lowa: Sigourney, November 3; Sioux City, average of 14 years, October 25. Ontario: Port Dover, October 30. Michigan: Battle Creek, November 19 (median of 29 years, October 22). Ohio-central Ohio, November 18 (median of 40 years, November 8). Indiana: Wayne County, November 25 (median of 13 years, November 14). Illinois: Chicago, December 4 (average of 16 years, November 4). Tennessee: Nashville, October 23 (median of 29 years, October 8). Newfoundland: Gander, October 10. Prince Edward Island: North River, October 16. Nova Scotia: Yarmouth, October 25. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, November 20. Quebec: Montreal area, November 11. Maine: Bangor, November 20; Lake Umbagog, October 30. New Hampshire: New Hampton, November 30 (median of 21 years, October 28). Vermont: Woodstock, November 15. Massachusetts: Essex County, November 14. Rhode Island: Providence, November 3. Connecticut: Portland, November 28; New Haven, November 20. New York: Tiana, October 31; Saratoga County, October 30. Pennsylvania: State College, November 19; Pittsburgh, November 16. Maryland: Laurel, December 20. District of Columbia: December 13.

Egg dates: Alberta: 21 records, June 1 to June 19.

Maine: 42 records, May 27 to July 12; 25 records, June 5 to June 16.

New Brunswick: 83 records, May25 to July 20; 40 records, June 9 to June 26.

Nova Scotia: 26 records, May 18 to July 22; 18 records, May 26 to June 10.

Ontario: 83 records, May 23 to August 5; 42 records, May 31 to June 12.

Quebec: 68 records, May 27 to July 23; 36 records, June 2 to June 24.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of Birdzilla.com. He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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