Bird of the Week: White-Throated Sparrow

White-throated sparrow by Pamla Wells
An adult white-throated sparrow perched on a branch in winter. Photo by Pamla Wells.

Iconic winter birds for backyard wildlife enthusiasts across much of the United States, white-throated sparrows already are bringing smiles to our faces as they return from northern breeding grounds and begin visiting our feeders this cold-weather season.

Dull-colored but strikingly handsome little birds, white-throated sparrows are brown above and gray below, with bold, black-and-white striped heads. (A second color morph of the species has a black-and-tan striped head.) The bird has a bright white patch on its throat and a spot of yellow between the eye and the bill.

Breeding and nesting primarily in Canadian and northern New England forests, white-throated sparrows winter across most of eastern and southern North America as well as California. You can easily spot them in thickets, weedy fields, city parks and suburban backyards.

White-throated sparrows feed on or near the ground, rustling leaves as they hunt for grass and tree seeds. The birds hop rather than run or walk. They frequently use both feet simultaneously to scratch backward, then leap forward on food they’ve turned up.

Backyard tips: In winter, white-throated sparrows readily visit feeders, primarily consuming seeds that have fallen on the ground. They seem to prefer millet and black-oil sunflower seed. A coniferous tree or brush pile near the feeder can provide shelter and a place to hide from predators ranging from Cooper’s hawks to your neighbor’s cat.

Voice: The white-throated sparrow’s song is a sad-sounding set of clear whistles on one pitch, introduced by a single lower note. Humans often hear the song as poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody (or, in Canada, as Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada).  Its call is a sweet, hard pink.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds and National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America. Check out these sources to see range maps and hear recordings of this bird’s call and song.

Learn more about choosing the best bird seed for white-throated sparrows and other backyard birds.

Make your yard more attractive to birds and other wildlife by becoming an NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat®.

As the seasons change, what new birds are showing up in your backyard? Here in NWF headquarters’ certified habitat, we’re seeing, in addition to white-throated sparrows,  dark-eyed juncos (also recent arrivals), song sparrows, white-breasted nuthatches, northern cardinals, northern flickers, hairy woodpeckers and American goldfinches (in drab winter plumage).