White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis
White-throated Sparrow specimens on display in the exhibit "Birds of D.C."

The White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) breeds in coniferous and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests and around forest edges, clearings, bogs, brush, and open woodlands; in migration and on its wintering grounds, these sparrows are also found in deciduous forest and woodland, scrub, and parks and gardens. White-throated Sparrows breed mainly in Canada, with some additional breeding populations in the northernmost portions of the Great Lakes states and in parts of the northeastern United States. They winter along the Pacific coast of the United States (but are relatively rare here) and in approximately the southeastern half of the United States from New Mexico to Kansas, Ohio, and New Hampshire. This common and widespread sparrow is named for its conspicuously and strongly outlined white throat. It has rusty brown upperparts, a dark bill, dark crown stripes, and a dark eyeline. The broad "eyebrow" (above the eye) is yellow in front of the eye, with the remainder either tan or white (two distinct color morphs). Juveniles have a grayish eyebrow and throat with heavily streaked breast and sides. The song, which is often heard even in winter, is a thin pensive whistle, generally two single notes followed by three triple notes: "Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada" (or "Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody"). The sharp tink and lisping tseep calls are frequently heard from flocks of sparrows in thickets. White-throated Sparrows eat mainly seeds and insects. Insects make up a large part of the diet during the breeding season (and young are fed mainly on insects), but the winter diet consists mainly of "weed" and grass seeds. Especially in fall, many berries may be consumed. White-throated Sparrows forage mainly on the ground under or close to dense thickets, scratching in the leaf litter with both feet. White-throated Sparrows almost always nest on the ground, at a site well hidden by low shrubs, grass, or ferns. They may occasionally nest above ground up to a height of several meters. The nest (built by the female) is an open cup made of grass, twigs, weeds, and pine needles and lined with fine grass, rootlets, and animal hair. The 4 to 5 eggs (sometimes 3 or 6, rarely 2 or 7) are pale blue or greenish blue and marked with reddish brown and lavender. Eggs are incubated (by the female only) for around 11 to 14 days. Both parents feed the nestlings. Young typically leave the nest 8 to 9 days after hatching, but are tended by the parents for at least another 2 weeks. Researchers have identified behavioral differences associated with the white-striped versus tan-striped morphs. Both males and females may exhibit either color, but adults nearly always mate with the opposite color morph. White-striped males tend to be more aggressive and to sing more than tan-striped males. White-striped females also sing, but tan-striped females generally do not. Pairs involving a tan-striped male and white-striped female usually form more quickly than the opposite combination. Tan-striped adults tend to feed their young more than white-striped adults. Migration occurs mostly at night. White-throated Sparrows tend to migrate relatively late in the fall, gradually moving south to their wintering grounds. (Kaufman 1996; AOU 1998; Dunn and Alderfer 2011)

DC Information

Common winter resident and abundant migrant, arriving in early October and leaving by the end of May. Seen in agricultural areas and around feeders in residential areas. Sexes are alike.

Distribution Map

distribution map for this species

Bird Vocalizations

Sound from xeno-canto. XC16937 Zonotrichia albicollis (White-throated Sparrow)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC54719 Zonotrichia albicollis (White-throated Sparrow)

Sound from xeno-canto. XC54762 Zonotrichia albicollis (White-throated Sparrow)