The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) is native to North America and known for its beautiful song.
It’s a rather modest bird that has two color morphs: white and tan. Delve into this article to discover how to identify this delightful species, explore its behavior, unearth fascinating facts, and more!
On this page
Male and female White-throated Sparrows share a similar appearance, featuring a plump body, rounded head, and a relatively long, notched tail.
These birds measure around 6.5 to 7.5 inches in length with a wingspan of 9 to 11 inches. Their back and wings are predominantly brown with darker brown and white streaks, providing effective camouflage while foraging. The underparts are pale gray with some darker streaks.
Their most identifying feature is their head and face. The bird’s crown features distinctive black and white stripes, forming a bold pattern. As the name suggests, they have a white patch on their throat.
Just in front of each eye, White-throated Sparrows have small yellow patches known as “lores,” adding a touch of color to their facial features. They have a black stripe through their eye and depending on the morph either a white or tan stripe above it.
Juvenile White-throated Sparrows look similar to adults, but they have brown instead of black stripes on their heads, faint streaks on their breasts, and less yellow before the eye.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of White-throated Sparrows is their beautiful song. The song is often described as a series of clear whistles that sound like “Oh-Sweet-Canada, Canada, Canada.”
However, variations in their song have led to different interpretations, such as “Old-Sam-Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” for some individuals.
White-throated Sparrows are omnivorous but primarily feed on small seeds from grasses, weeds, and various other plants.
During the breeding season and while raising their young, these sparrows supplement their diet with insects and other small invertebrates such as ants, bugs, beetles, flies, damselflies, wasps, millipedes, snails, caterpillars, and more.
On occasion, they may eat small fruits and berries when seeds and insects are less available or during their migration period.
They will forage on the ground to find fallen or exposed seeds, occasionally scratching the ground with both feet. You may also find them foraging in dense thickets, shrubs, and low trees.
Nesting and Eggs
Male White-throated Sparrows use their songs to establish territories and attract females. Their songs consist of clear, whistled notes, and the quality and complexity of the song play a significant role in influencing a female’s choice of partner. Courtship displays begin once a female is attracted to a male’s song and territory.
The female takes the primary responsibility for building the nest, though the male may assist in gathering materials.
The building process involves finding a depression in the ground, lining it with moss, then constructing the walls from twigs, wood chips, pine needles, and grass, and lining it with grasses, hair, and other fine plant material. It’s rather small, only up to 5.5 inches across and up to 2.5 inches deep.
Typically, White-throated Sparrows nest on or near the ground, hidden among vegetation for protection and camouflage. If something happened to the previous nest, then they may opt to build the next one above the ground.
White-throated Sparrow eggs are pale blue or greenish blue with reddish brown or lavender markings. They have up to 2 broods in a year with 1-7, usually 4-5 eggs in a clutch. The incubation process is primarily the mother bird’s responsibility and lasts for 11 to 14 days.
Both parents actively participate in feeding the nestlings. The young birds typically leave the nest approximately 8 to 9 days after hatching and continue to be cared for by their parents for at least two more weeks.
White-throated Sparrows range throughout most of North America. Its breeding range extends across the northern regions of Canada and parts of the United States, whereas its wintering range extends to the southern United States and slightly across the border into Mexico.
They are year-round residents in a part of the Northeast.
White-throated Sparrows generally inhabit brushy areas, thickets, and coniferous or mixed woodlands. You may see them in clearings, forest edges, and roadsides. In the winter, they can be seen in more open areas, such as parks and suburbs.
This sparrow species is listed as of least concern on the IUCN Red List, although it is indicated that its population is decreasing.
- There are some interesting differences between the white- and tan-striped color morphs. Tan-striped morphs tend to be less aggressive than white-striped ones, but they sing less. Tan-striped females generally don’t sing, whereas white-striped females do.
- The reproduction behavior of the two color morphs is also different. White-striped males and females tend to engage in extra-pair copulations with the males intruding into other territories and the females leaving eggs into other nests. Tan-striped males and females focus more on protecting each other and raising their young. Interestingly, the birds almost always mate with the opposite morph.
- White-throated Sparrows may interbreed with other species. One example is the Dark-eyed Junco. The resulting hybrid has dark gray plumage, dark markings, and whitish underside and outer tail feathers.
- These sparrows have an average life expectancy of up to 6 years old. The oldest known specimen, however, lived to be 14 years and 11 months of age.
White-throated Sparrows have a few very similar species that can be hard to distinguish, and we’ve introduced three of them. The overall trick is to focus on their heads and faces.
Although they look similar, Golden-crowned Sparrows are easier to distinguish from White-throated Sparrows.
They have a black stripe above their eyes, a yellow crown stripe, and gray cheeks and throat.
Immatures do not have a white throat and head stripes.
Surprisingly, White-crowned Sparrows look almost identical to White-throated Sparrows.
However, White-crowned Sparrows don’t have small yellow patches in front of their eyes and their throat is gray instead of white. The immatures are similar as well.
Luckily, White-throated Sparrows have a white throat and gray bill, whereas the White-crowned Sparrow has a dark reddish-brown crown stripe, gray throat, and orange bill.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is a White-throated Sparrow rare?
White-throated Sparrows are common birds in North America and are listed as of least concern on the IUCN Red List.
Where are White-throated Sparrows found?
White-throated Sparrows can be found in coniferous and mixed woods, forest edges, thickets, and brushy areas across most of North America.
Where do White-throated Sparrows go in the winter?
White-throated Sparrows fly southward to the southern US for the winter. There they’re usually found in the same habitat types but may also be seen in more open areas such as parks and suburban areas.
Are White-throated Sparrows aggressive?
White-throated Sparrows are aggressive during the breeding season, with white-striped males being more aggressive than tan-striped individuals.
Do White-throated Sparrows come to feeders?
White-throated Sparrows visit feeders for seeds, such as millet and sunflower.