Thursday, November 12, 2009

LOOK FOR: White Throated Sparrows, Back for the Winter

White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
Photo credit: Ed Gaillard
A few weeks ago, we started seeing white throated sparrows in our yard again. These little birds breed in Canada during the summer, then head south to spend the winter anywhere from Pennsylvania south to Florida, and west to Missouri and Texas.

White throated sparrows often hop around on the ground and forage in the leaf litter, where most of their plumage serves as good camouflage. But their head markings stand out, and lend the bird its scientific name, Zonotrichia albicollis: stripe-headed white-throat. These birds do indeed have white throats, often with a thin, dark border. The stripes on top of the head come in two color variations: either black and white or brown and tan. But perhaps most distinctive is the little patch of yellow just above and in front of the eye (a "lore"). This yellow patch stands out to me so much that this, and not the white throat, is usually how I recognize these birds for who they are.

Some people say the song of the white-throated sparrow sounds like they're saying "Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada." I find that helps me remember what bird I'm hearing more than the other mnemonic often used for their song: "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody." Anybody could say that (though I'm not sure why Sam Peabody is so deserving of pity). No, these little guys are clearly longing for their summer home. Have a listen:

White-throated sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
Photo credit: Dave Maher
In the wild: like many birds, white-throated sparrows like the edges of woods, and suburban backyards. In the winter they eat seeds from grasses and ragweed to grape, rose, and dogwood.

In your yard: White throated sparrows will come to feeders, especially for millet and black oil sunflower seeds, but they prefer to eat the seed scattered on the ground. You can make an area extra-inviting by providing cover (like a brush pile or thicket) and water in a birdbath, pond, or fountain.

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