Photo: John McKean/Vireo

White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis

A common winter bird of eastern woodlots, shuffling about on the ground in loose flocks, often coming to bird feeders that are placed close enough to the shelter of thickets. It is also widespread in the West in winter, but in much smaller numbers. In summer, White-throated Sparrows sing their clear whistles in northern forests. Adults may have head stripes of either white or tan, and scientists have found some odd differences in behavior between these two color morphs.
Conservation status Widespread and common. Surveys suggest slight declines in total numbers during recent decades.
Family New World Sparrows
Habitat Thickets, brush, undergrowth of conifer and mixed woodlands. Breeds in zone of coniferous and mixed forest, mainly in openings having dense thickets of deciduous shrubs, such as around ponds, clearings, edges, roadsides, second growth. Winters in areas with dense low cover, including forest undergrowth and edges, well-vegetated suburbs and parks.
A common winter bird of eastern woodlots, shuffling about on the ground in loose flocks, often coming to bird feeders that are placed close enough to the shelter of thickets. It is also widespread in the West in winter, but in much smaller numbers. In summer, White-throated Sparrows sing their clear whistles in northern forests. Adults may have head stripes of either white or tan, and scientists have found some odd differences in behavior between these two color morphs.
Photo Gallery
  • adult (bright)
  • immature (1st winter)
  • adult (bright)
  • adult (drab)
  • immature (1st winter)
Feeding Behavior

Forages mostly on ground under or close to dense thickets. Often scratches briefly in leaf-litter with both feet. Also forages up in shrubs and low trees, mainly in summer.


Eggs

4-5, sometimes 3-6, rarely 2-7. Pale blue or greenish blue, marked with reddish brown and lavender. Incubation is by female only, about 11-14 days. Young: Both parents feed nestlings. Young usually leave nest 8-9 days after hatching, are tended by parents for at least 2 more weeks. 1-2 broods per year. A few differences between color morphs: White-striped males are usually more aggressive and do more singing than tan-striped males. White-striped females also sing, but tan-striped females usually do not. Pairs involving a tan-striped male and white-striped female usually form more quickly than those of the opposite combination. Tan-striped adults tend to feed their young more often than white-striped adults.


Young

Both parents feed nestlings. Young usually leave nest 8-9 days after hatching, are tended by parents for at least 2 more weeks. 1-2 broods per year. A few differences between color morphs: White-striped males are usually more aggressive and do more singing than tan-striped males. White-striped females also sing, but tan-striped females usually do not. Pairs involving a tan-striped male and white-striped female usually form more quickly than those of the opposite combination. Tan-striped adults tend to feed their young more often than white-striped adults.

Diet

Mostly seeds and insects. Feeds heavily on insects during breeding season, including damselflies, ants, wasps, true bugs, beetles, flies, caterpillars, and others, plus spiders, millipedes, and snails. Winter diet is mostly seeds of weeds and grasses. Also eats many berries, especially in fall. Young are fed mostly insects.


Nesting

The two color morphs (with tan-striped and white-striped heads) may be either male or female; adults almost always mate with the opposite color morph. Male sings to defend nesting territory. Nest site usually on ground, well hidden by low shrubs (such as blueberry), grass, or ferns. Sometimes nests above ground in shrubs, brushpiles, or low trees, rarely up to 10' high. Nest (built by female) is open cup made of grass, twigs, weeds, pine needles, lined with fine grass, rootlets, animal hair.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Migrates mostly at night. Tends to migrate relatively late in fall, moving south gradually toward wintering areas.

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Migration

Migrates mostly at night. Tends to migrate relatively late in fall, moving south gradually toward wintering areas.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
Song a clear, whistled Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, or Sweet Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. The latter rendition is perhaps more appropriate, since most of these birds breed in Canada.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.