March: White-throated Sparrow
Hello March – and hello to this month’s bird, the White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)! March is of course the first month of spring, but if we know anything about the Philadelphia area, winter always loves to give us an icy front or two early into the month of green. This transition time of year is when the White-throated sparrow finds itself in a transitory phase as well.
Southeastern Pennsylvania is one of the last stops for millions of White-throated Sparrows as they make their way north into Canada for their summer breeding season. But while we start to say goodbye to these birds now, all winter they have been our neighbors, singing their signature oh-sweet-canada-canada-canada tune (click here for an audio sample!) as they forage in just about every nook and cranny of every neighborhood of Philly. Don’t worry if you haven’t paid close enough attention to them over the last few months – their migration north means that you may see an uptick in their numbers around this time of year.
When it comes to spotting a White-throated Sparrow, you will typically never see one by its lonesome. These tiny birds flock together, oftentimes flying around in groups while foraging on the ground or around dense brush. These sparrows gorge on insects during verdant Canadian summers when damselflies, ants, wasps, beetles, caterpillars, spiders, millipedes, and even snails are all on the menu. But winter gets a bit bleaker when seeds, grasses, and berries replace the summertime buffets.
Regarding coloring though, these birds can be seriously overlooked. Because of their small size and their tendency to remain below our eyesight, we tend to ignore the myriad of colors and patterns that define the White-throated Sparrow. Of course, they do have white throats like their name suggests, but look closer and you will find an ornately decorated bird. They have crisp facial markings made up of gray, black, white, and yellow streaks with a distinct white line dividing their face. Their wings are also intricately striped with an either tan or white deviation. Interestingly enough, experts have found that this duality of stripe coloring has drastic effects on behavior. For instance, white-striped males are more aggressive than their tan-striped counterparts. White-striped females usually enjoy singing, while their tan-striped opposites like their peace and quiet. The examples continue in many ways believe it or not.
While most White-throated Sparrows have just one minor alteration in stripe coloring, there is one thing to mention about a special kind of variation that sometimes occurs when these sparrows mate with January’s bird of the month – the Dark-eyed Junco. Seeing that these species look vaguely similar, sometimes they do mate, resulting in hybrid offspring that look a little more grayish with white tail feathers.
One way to attract the White-throated Sparrow is to set up a bird feeder in your backyard. These birds readily stop at feeders to grab a snack, but feel free to leave a pile of leaves or brush so the sparrows can take cover in between feeder trips.
For more information about the White-throated Sparrow, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for advice on what types of feeders may attract this sparrow or other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.