The first field mark most bird watchers notice on the white-throated sparrow is not the white throat, but the black-and-white striped head pattern with a yellow spot between the eyes and bill. Even at a distance this striking pattern is obvious. Some white-throated sparrows have tan-striped heads and a tannish throat. These belong to the tan-striped variety of the species, though many ornithologists formerly thought these were young birds not yet in adult plumage. This medium-sized (6 ¾ inches long) sparrow has a gray breast and a brown, lightly patterned back.
Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody is the sweet whistled song of the white-throated sparrow. In Canada, where this species spends the breeding season, the song is transcribed as Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada—but there’s no arguing that the white-throated sparrow’s song is easy to recognize. Two call notes are tseeet! And a loud, metallic chink!
From September to March these northern breeders are with us, in loose flocks with other sparrows, brightening winter days with their cheery sounds. Spending most of the summer in the boreal coniferous forests of the far north and New England, the white-throated sparrow spends fall and winter far to the south, where it is a regular at bird feeders and in brushy edge habitat. It prefers a habitat with thick underbrush and is found near the edge of the woods, along hedge-rows, and in brushy thickets in parks and backyards.
White-throated sparrows prefer to feed on the ground. In spring and summer, the white-throated sparrow’s diet is focused on insects— ants, grubs, and spiders—that it uncovers as it scratches through the leaf litter, much like a towhee does. In fall the diet shifts to include berries; in winter it includes mostly seeds from grasses. At bird feeders they are attracted to mixed seed, cracked corn, and sunflower or peanut bits offered on the ground or on a platform feeder.
White-throated sparrows nest on or near the ground in a well-concealed spot. The cup-shaped nest is built by the female from grass, pine needles, and twigs and lined with soft material, such as rootlets or fur. The female incubates the four to five eggs for about two weeks; the male assists her in feeding the nestlings for the nine days prior to fledging. The young birds rely on the parents for food for about another two weeks.
It was once thought that the tan-striped morph of this species was the juvenal plumage of the white-striped adults. Studies have shown that white-striped adults usually mate with tan-striped birds.