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White-throated Sparrow Life History

Habitat

Habitat ForestsIn 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.Back to top

Food

Food SeedsWhite-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.Back to top

Nesting

Nest Placement

Nest GroundFemale 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:0.8-0.9 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.
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Behavior

Behavior Ground ForagerWhite-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.Back to top

Conservation

Conservation Low Concern

White-throated Sparrows may be abundant, but they have declined annually by an estimated 0.74% for a cumulative decline of about 33% over most of their range between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. In the U.S., they declined by 69% during that time. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 160 million and rates them 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. White-throated Sparrow migrate at night and are sometimes killed from impact with tall structures and lighted buildings.

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Credits

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye (1988). The Birder's Handbook. A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds, Including All Species That Regularly Breed North of Mexico. Simon and Schuster Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Falls, J. B. and J. G. Kopachena. (2010). White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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