Bird Lore: White-throated Sparrow

Many sparrows can appear drab and be difficult for the casual observer to identify. The White-throated Sparrow is the exception. Although it could be confused with the White-crowned Sparrow, with which it shares the genus Zonotrichia, its brilliant white throat is distinctive. It winters in Edmonds in small numbers, either in public areas with dense brush or in private yards with areas of dense vegetation. It comes to feeders that attract other sparrows.

The White-throated Sparrow eats mostly insects and seeds. It feeds heavily on insects during the breeding season and eats the seeds of grasses and weeds in winter. It seeks out berries in fall. It forages mostly on the ground near or under dense thickets. It will also scratch in leaf litter with both feet.

Breeding takes place around the Great Lakes and across Canada. This sparrow seeks out coniferous and mixed forests, breeding mainly in openings with dense thickets of deciduous shrubs such as around ponds, clearings, and roadside edges. Wintering takes place along the West Coast of the U.S. and from Southeast Arizona across the Gulf Coast and up through New England. It migrates mostly at night and later in fall, moving south gradually.

The male sings to defend his nesting territory. Most pairs place their nests on the ground, hidden by low shrubs such as blueberries, grasses, or ferns. Sometimes the nest is above ground, in a shrub, brush pile, or low tree. The female builds the nest, which is an open cup of twigs, grass, weeds, and conifer needles. It is lined with finer materials.

The female incubates the four to five eggs for about two weeks. Both adults feed the nestlings, which remain in the nest for about eight to nine days. The parents tend the young for another two weeks. This species may have one or two broods per year.

There are two color morphs of the White-throated Sparrow. The crown stripes are either white or tan. The photos only show white-striped birds. The two forms are determined genetically and persist because white-striped individuals will mate with tan-striped birds. Males seem to prefer white-striped females and females appear to prefer tan-striped males. It is thought that the white-striped sparrows are more aggressive than the tan-striped.

The oldest known White-throated Sparrow was at least 14 years and 11 months of age when it was captured and released in an Alberta banding operation. There are many collective nouns for all sparrows, including crew, flutter, meinie, quarrel, and ubiquity.

The White-throated Sparrow is a species of low concern for conservation purposes. It is an abundant sparrow, although its population declined by 35 percent between 1966 and 2014. The breeding population is estimated at 140 million. This species would be vulnerable to habitat loss, predators such as cats, and collisions with structures such as buildings and windows

This is the White-throated Sparrow’s call note, heard in fall and winter: This is its breeding season song, which would not likely be heard, here:

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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