White-Throated Sparrows winter visitors from the far north

Published 2:30 pm Monday, October 11, 2010

A quiet song echoes from the brown woodlands. The notes are clear, repetitive and seem to almost pierce the cool winter air. This selection of whistling notes make up the song of the White-throated Sparrow, a winter visitor here in western North Carolina. For many people living from southern Canada to New England, this is the classic song of the northern forests and surprisingly this species habitually sings even on its wintering grounds.

White-throats breed east of the Rocky Mountains, from southern Alberta as far east as Nova Scotia in a mix of brushy woodlands, including mixed and spruce-fir forest. Their winter habitat includes most of the southern United States, where they are a fairly common sight in many brushy areas, including hedgerows, woodlands and back yards, where they readily come to feed on the ground at the base of many bird feeders. Here they can often be seen feeding alongside Dark-eyed Juncos, another winter visitor from our nearby mountains, as well as from colder climes farther north.

Sparrows can be quite

difficult to identify and may be conveniently split into two groups some with streaked or spotted breasts, while others are mostly plain below. White-throated Sparrows are typical of the latter group, being mostly brown with plain underparts, although their breast may show some marking or indistinct streaking.&bsp; They also have 2 white wing bars, but their most obvious feature is the strongly marked head pattern. A bold pattern of black and white stripes, coupled with a white throat and yellow lores give this bird away and makes its identity unmistakable. The larger White-crowned Sparrow shares the White-throats head pattern, but lacks the white throat and seems to have a slightly more clean-cut appearance. White-crowns rarely come to feeders and prefer to feed in fairly open, agricultural country.

White-throats also come in a tan striped version of the familiar black and white striped adult. This color phase used to be considered the immature form, but is now considered a morph as both forms can readily breed together.

While White-throats are on of our most abundant winter sparrows, they are also one of the most attractive. Next time you have a small flock feeding on the ground under the feeder, take another look. You may be surprised at how striking they really are.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours. www.birdventures.com.

If you have birding questions, please drop Simon an e-mail at the above site.