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White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: EMBERIZIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Crisp facial markings make the White-throated Sparrow an attractive bird as well as a hopping, flying anatomy lesson. There’s the black eyestripe, the white crown and supercilium, the yellow lores, the white throat bordered by a black whisker, or malar stripe. They’re also a great entrée into the world of birdsong, with their pretty, wavering whistle of Oh-sweet-canada. These forest sparrows breed mostly across Canada, but they’re familiar winter birds across most of eastern and southern North America and California.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3–7.1 in
16–18 cm
Wingspan
7.9–9.1 in
20–23 cm
Weight
0.8–1.1 oz
22–32 g
Relative Size
Slightly larger than a Song Sparrow
Other Names
  • Bruant à gorge blanche (French)

Cool Facts

  • The White-throated Sparrow comes in two color forms: white-crowned and tan-crowned. The two forms are genetically determined, and they persist because individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females may be able to outcompete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males.
  • Although they look nothing alike and aren’t particularly closely related, the White-throated Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco occasionally mate and produce hybrids. The resulting offspring look like grayish, dully marked White-throated Sparrows with white outer tail feathers.
  • White-throated Sparrows typically nest on or near the ground. Occasional nests are built up to 15 feet off the ground in conifers. Usually, these nests are second attempts after a pair has had a ground nest robbed by a predator.
  • The oldest recorded White-throated Sparrow was 9 years 8 months old.

Habitat


Forest

In summer, White-throated Sparrows are birds of forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S., and the northern Midwest. Look for them in either coniferous or deciduous forests up to treeline, especially around openings with low, dense vegetation; in areas regrowing after logging, fires, or insect damage; or edges of ponds, meadows, and bogs. During migration and winter, you’ll find White-throated Sparrows along edges of woodlots, hedgerows, thickets, weedy fields, suburbs, backyards, and city parks.

Food


Seeds

White-throated Sparrows eat mainly the seeds of grasses and weeds, including ragweed and buckwheat, as well as fruits of sumac, grape, cranberry, mountain ash, rose, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. In summer they eat large numbers of insects that they catch on the forest floor or, occasionally on quick flights out from low vegetation. These include dragonflies, wasps, stinkbugs, beetles, flies, and caterpillars, as well as spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails. Parents feed their nestlings almost exclusively animal matter. During winter, White-throated Sparrows readily visit bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds. In spring they eat the tender buds, blossoms, and young seeds of oak, apple, maple, beech, and elm.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.9–2.3 cm
Egg Width
0.6–0.7 in
1.4–1.7 cm
Incubation Period
11–14 days
Nestling Period
7–12 days
Egg Description
Very pale blue or greenish blue speckled with purplish, chestnut, and lilac.
Condition at Hatching
Naked except for sparse patches of brown down on the head, back, and wings, eyes closed, clumsy.
Nest Description

The female builds the nest mostly in the morning. She finds a depression in the ground and builds it up with pieces of moss. Next, she builds the nest walls using grass, twigs, wood chips, pine needles. She then makes a lining of fine grasses, rootlets, and deer hair. The nest is typically concealed from above by leaves and visible from only one side. The finished nest is 3-5.5 inches across on the outside, with an inner cup 1.7-4 inches across and 1-2.5 inches deep. White-throated Sparrows don’t reuse their nests.

Nest Placement

Ground

Female White-throated Sparrows put their nests on or just above the ground, typically in level areas in clearings with dense ground vegetation. The nest is usually built under shrubs, grasses, or ferns, sometimes even beneath dead vegetation from the previous year. Birds sometimes put their nests off the ground, particularly if they lost a previous nest to a predator. These nests may be in roots of an upturned tree, brush piles, in shrubs or ferns, or as high as 10 feet up in a coniferous tree.

White-throated Sparrow Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

White-throated Sparrow Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Ground Forager

White-throated Sparrows hop when they’re on the ground rather than walking or running. They forage in the leaf litter, often using both feet at once to scratch backwards, then pounce forward at anything they’ve uncovered. They also toss leaves aside with flicks of the head. During the breeding season the males are aggressive, chasing each other off their territories. “White-striped” forms tend to be more aggressive than “tan-striped” forms. Later in the breeding season this aggressiveness declines, and by fall White-throated Sparrows form large flocks that forage together. Hierarchies, or pecking orders, exist in these winter flocks. Males are typically dominant over females, but whether an individual is white-striped or tan-striped seems to have no bearing on status. When pairing up, white-striped forms tend to choose tan-striped individuals, and vice versa. Pairs stay together for the summer, but birds often choose new partners the next year. White-throated Sparrows take short flights between adjacent branches when foraging and fly with rapid wingbeats.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

White-throated Sparrows are abundant, but declined over most of their range between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 140 million with 94 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 96 percent in Canada, and 4 percent wintering in Mexico. This U.S.-Canada Stewardship species rates an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is not on the 2012 Watch List.

Credits

Range Map Help

White-throated Sparrow Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short to medium-distance migrant. Even though White-throated Sparrows are found in the Northeast year-round, the birds that breed there tend to leave in fall, to be replaced by wintering birds that bred farther north.

Backyard Tips

White-throated Sparrows readily visit feeders or peck at fallen seeds beneath them. They feed on millet as well as sunflower seeds. If you make a brush pile in your yard it will give White-throated Sparrows a place to take cover in between trips out into your yard to feed.

Find This Bird

Look for White-throated Sparrows on the ground in woods and at brushy edges. In winter these birds often forage in large flocks and they sometimes make themselves easier to find by singing their easily recognizable, whistled song. With a bit more practice you can recognize their sharp chip note, often given by an alert bird in a conspicuous perch. White-throated Sparrows often come to investigate if you make pishing sounds.

Get Involved

Keep track of the White-throated Sparrows at your feeder with Project FeederWatch

What's That Sparrow? ID Tips from the Great Backyard Bird Count

Explore sounds and video of White-throated Sparrows from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Macaulay Library archive

Enhance your yard for sparrows and other birds. To get started, visit our web pages on attracting birds.

Learn more about bird photography in our Building Skills section. Then contribute your images to the Birdshare flickr site, which helps supply All About Birds and our other websites with photos.

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Find in-depth information on White-throated Sparrows and all of North America's breeding birds for as little as $5 in The Birds of North America Online (Cornell Lab of Ornithology and American Ornithologists' Union).