10 Fun Facts About the White-throated Sparrow

From their viral tunes to their bizarre genetics, this backyard favorite is full of surprises.

Appearing in dizzying varieties of white, tan, red, brown, striped, spotted, and crowned, sparrows can confuse even the most seasoned birders. Fortunately, the White-throated Sparrow—true to its name—has a bright white throat, aiding any birder in a confident ID. Although some sparrows may be elusive, hiding in dense marshes or rarely singing, White-throated Sparrows are frequent visitors to feeders in the eastern United States. This sparrow may be common to backyards, but their color variation and strange genetics suggest they are anything but ordinary.

1.) White-throated Sparrows are one of North America's most common and abundant sparrow species, wintering primarily in the eastern United States and summering throughout Canada and parts of the northeast. A 2019 study revealed that Passerellidae, new world sparrows that include White-throated Sparrows, declined by 87 percent over the past half century—that’s 862 million fewer birds than population estimates in 1970. The White-throated Sparrow population remains somewhat stable, but conversion of their preferred forest habitat to agriculture marks the greatest threat.

2.) The White-throated Sparrow’s scientific name, Zonotrichia albicollis, closely matches the common name: The genus, Zonotrichia, stems from the ancient Greek for “hair band,” and albicollis comes from Latin, meaning “white neck.” Although the common name emphasizes the white throat, don’t forget about their handsome yellow lores, or feather patches between their bill and eyes, that both males and females sport to varying degrees. 

3.) As for those lores, White-throated Sparrows are unable to produce yellow, so the birds depend on a diet rich in carotenoids—pigments manufactured mainly by plants—to provide this golden hue. Their fall and winter diet of seeds and fruit—especially wild cranberries, blueberries, and grapes—give the sparrows a carotenoid boost. 

4. For birders, the sweet, clear song of the White-throated Sparrow is a cherished sign of spring. Their tune is often described as an easily recognizable Poor Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, or Oh sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada. But sometime before 2000, a new version of the song emerged in western Canada that dropped a syllable: Oh sweet, Cana, Cana, Cana. The remixed tune went viral, expanding east across Canada and over to New England by 2019. Researchers suspect that sparrows singing the original song learned the two-syllable version from birds on shared wintering grounds.

5.) White-throated Sparrows breed in Canada and the northern boundary of the United States in coniferous and deciduous forests, especially those regenerating from logging, fires, and insect damage. They generally build their nest cups on the ground, in areas where low, dense understory conceals nests. A lovely shade of pale greenish-blue, the four to five eggs hatch after two weeks of incubation by the female. Although young leave the nest fewer than 10 days after hatching, parents may continue to feed nestlings protein-rich insects for an additional two weeks. White-throated Sparrows can raise two broods in a breeding season, and females sometimes start the second brood less than a week after nestlings from the first brood fledge. 

6.) Most White-throated Sparrows perform some type of migration, though a population of hardy birds does live year-round in the northeastern United States, where they survive on bits of grass, seeds, and berries. They also frequent city parks and backyards, taking advantage of bird feeders. In the spring, migrants from the southeastern United States fan out and pass through the Midwest as they head to their northern breeding territories. Populations of White-throated Sparrows that winter in western states migrate to northern breeding territories west of the Rocky Mountains, though they are less abundant than eastern populations. 

7.) White-throated Sparrows generally live up to 6 years old, but one individual was almost 10 years old when recovered in Fairfax, Virginia, a victim of a cat predation. Another long-lived sparrow had survived up to 14 years and 11 months when scientists recaptured it in Alberta, Canada.

8.) Like several other bird species, White-throated Sparrows boast two color morphs: Some individuals sport broad tan stripes on their head, and others have distinct white stripes. The discovery of the two morphs in adults—rather than them just being a matter of plumage variation or maturity—was a breakthrough finding in 1961 by ornithologist James Lowther. Males and females can be tan-striped or white-striped, and they fully overlap in their breeding and wintering areas.

9.) The color morphs not only look different, they also behave uniquely, setting the White-throated Sparrow apart from other species. White-striped males have higher testosterone than tan-striped individuals and tend to be more aggressive; the male white-striped birds also romance more females. Shining in the parental category, tan-striped birds are more nurturing. The two color variants and their specific mating preferences are the result of intriguing genetics that effectively create four “sexes” in White-throated Sparrows: white-striped males, white-striped females, tan-striped males, and tan-striped females.

10.) Spot a funky looking White-throated Sparrow? Almost 10 percent of all bird species hybridize, so your eyes may not be deceiving you. Although the White-throated tends to be picky about which morph it mates with—white-striped birds only mate with tan-striped birds—they sometimes pair with Dark-eyed Juncos. The coupling can yield healthy offspring that look like grayer White-throated Sparrows, whose songs combine a junco’s trill and the “Canada” notes of the White-throated Sparrow.