Early Signs of Winter

Sighting the white-throated sparrow

By Susan Campbell

Here in the central part of North Carolina, the winged harbinger of winter is the white-throated sparrow. Summering in the forests of the far North, this bold little bird breeds across Canada and at elevation in northern New England. A medium-sized sparrow, it is brown above and white below with bold markings on the head. Pale stripes on the crown and a white throat patch are set off by gray feathers on the face. White-throateds also sport a yellow spot at the base of their stout bill.

Interestingly, there are two color forms of this species: those with heads that are white-striped as well as those that are tan-striped. Both forms persist because, as much as white-striped individuals are more aggressive during the breeding season, each almost always pair with the other type. Nests are made by the female in a depression on the ground under a low-growing tree or shrub. However, should it be depredated, the second nest may be placed on low branches.

If you have not spotted one of these birds, you almost certainly have heard their distinctive loud “seet” call emanating from thick vegetation. Their song, which can be heard even during cold weather, is a recognizable, liquid “oh sweet Canada” or to some, more of an “old Sam Peabody.” Since they tend to flock together, you are likely to encounter small groups along forest edges, farm fields, parks and suburban areas that have thick shrubbery.

White-throateds are commonly found at feeding stations, often in association with dark-eyed juncos, another bird of high country. These squatty sparrows actually have a broad diet. Although they primarily feed on a range of seeds during the winter months, their preference shifts during the year. In spring, they are more likely to seek out buds and flowers of fresh vegetation.

White-throated sparrows do not walk or run but hop when on the ground. As they forage, they will forcefully scratch backward in leaf litter using both feet and pouncing on food items that they uncover. These birds will also flick aside dead leaves using their bills. In the winter months, pecking orders form within flocks with the more aggressive males dominating.

If you want to attract white-throated sparrows this winter, it is easy and inexpensive. Since they tend to stay low, scattering a seed mix in a cleared spot near shrubs or other thick vegetation is all it may take. White-throateds will hop up onto a stump or low platform feeder as well. Easier yet, simply leave a portion of your yard unmown until spring, and these predictable visitors may well turn up to take advantage of the resulting seeds that remain as the growing season winds down.  OH

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photographs at susan@ncaves.com.

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