White-throated Sparrow

Zonotrichia albicollis

Crisp facial markings make the White-throated Sparrow an attractive bird as well as a hopping, flying anatomy lesson. There’s the black eyestripe, the white crown and supercilium, the yellow lores, the white throat bordered by a black whisker, or malar stripe. They’re also a great entrée into the world of birdsong, with their pretty, wavering whistle of Oh-sweet-canada. These forest sparrows breed mostly across Canada, but they’re familiar winter birds across most of eastern and southern North America and California.

Cool Facts

Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley
  • The White-throated Sparrow comes in two color forms: white-crowned and tan-crowned. The two forms are genetically determined, and they persist because individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. Males of both color types prefer females with white stripes, but both kinds of females prefer tan-striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females may be able to outcompete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males.
  • Although they look nothing alike and aren’t particularly closely related, the White-throated Sparrow and the Dark-eyed Junco occasionally mate and produce hybrids. The resulting offspring look like grayish, dully marked White-throated Sparrows with white outer tail feathers.
  • White-throated Sparrows typically nest on or near the ground. Occasional nests are built up to 15 feet off the ground in conifers. Usually, these nests are second attempts after a pair has had a ground nest robbed by a predator.
  • The oldest recorded White-throated Sparrow was 9 years 8 months old.


Size & Shape

The White-throated Sparrow is a large, full-bodied sparrow with a fairly prominent bill, rounded head, long legs, and long, narrow tail.

Color Pattern

White-throated Sparrows are brown above and gray below with a striking head pattern. The black-and-white-striped head is augmented by a bright white throat and yellow between the eye and the bill, which is gray. You’ll also see a less boldly marked form, known as “tan-striped,” with a buff-on-brown face pattern instead of white-on-black.

Range Map
Taxonomic Hierarchy


© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Emberizidae
Genus: Zonotrichia
Species: Zonotrichia albicollis
White-throated Sparrows sing a pretty, thin whistle that sounds like Oh-sweet-canada-canada or Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody. The whistles are even but typically move slightly up or down in pitch by the second or third note. The whole song lasts about 4 seconds. White-throated Sparrows sing often during the breeding season, even in the middle of the day, and on their winter range as well. Males of both forms sing, and so does the “white-striped” female. “Tan-striped” females sing very rarely.

Identification and Information
See Anatomy of a Bird
  • Length Range: 16-19 cm (6.25-7.5 in)
  • Weight: 26 g (0.9 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Brown, Gray
  • Underparts: Pale gray with gray breast.
  • Upperparts: Red-brown with brown streaking.
  • Back Pattern: Striped or streaked
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Striped or streaked, Solid
  • Bill Shape: Cone
  • Eye Color: Brown when immature, becoming reddish brown in adults.
  • Head Pattern: Eyeline, Striped, Malar or malar stripe
  • Crown Color: Black and white stripes.
  • Forehead Color: Black, white and yellow stripes.
  • Nape Color: Black and white stapes.
  • Throat Color: White
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Alternates several rapid wing beats with wings pulled to sides.
  • Wingspan Range: 22-25 cm (8.75-10 in)
  • Wing Shape: Pointed-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Notched Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Solid
  • Upper Tail: Dark red-brown
  • Under Tail: Dark red-brown
  • Leg Color: Pink
  • Breeding Location: Forests, coniferous, Forest edge
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous, Solitary nester
  • Breeding Population: Fairly common to common
  • Egg Color: Creamy white, blue or green with red brown marks
  • Number of Eggs: 3 - 6
  • Incubation Days: 11 - 14
  • Egg Incubator: Female
  • Nest Material: Grasses, twigs, pine needles., Lined with fine grass, rootlets and hair.
  • Migration: Migratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Naked except for sparse patches of brown down on the head, back, and wings, eyes closed, clumsy.

Other Names

Similar Species

  • Bruant à gorge blanche (French)
  • Adult White-crowned Sparrows have no yellow on the head and no white throat patch. Immature and “tan-striped” White-throated Sparrows can resemble immature White-crowned Sparrows, but usually have faint streaking on the breast and yellow lores.
  • Golden-crowned Sparrows have an unmarked gray throat and yellow in the crown.
  • Song Sparrows can resemble “tan-striped” White-throated Sparrows, but are much more heavily streaked below and no yellow on the face.

Conservation Status

Abundant, but apparently declining over much of breeding range.





Sources used to Construct this Page:

In summer, White-throated Sparrows are birds of forests across Canada, the northeastern U.S., and the northern Midwest. Look for them in either coniferous or deciduous forests up to treeline, especially around openings with low, dense vegetation; in areas regrowing after logging, fires, or insect damage; or edges of ponds, meadows, and bogs. During migration and winter, you’ll find White-throated Sparrows along edges of woodlots, hedgerows, thickets, weedy fields, suburbs, backyards, and city parks.
  • Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
  • Ehrlich, P. R., D. S. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook. Simon & Schuster Inc., New York.
  • Falls, J. B. and J. G. Kopachena. 1994. White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online
  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Longevity Records
White-throated Sparrows eat mainly the seeds of grasses and weeds, including ragweed and buckwheat, as well as fruits of sumac, grape, cranberry, mountain ash, rose, blueberry, blackberry, and dogwood. In summer they eat large numbers of insects that they catch on the forest floor or, occasionally on quick flights out from low vegetation. These include dragonflies, wasps, stinkbugs, beetles, flies, and caterpillars, as well as spiders, millipedes, centipedes, and snails. Parents feed their nestlings almost exclusively animal matter. During winter, White-throated Sparrows readily visit bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds. In spring they eat the tender buds, blossoms, and young seeds of oak, apple, maple, beech, and elm.
White-throated Sparrows hop when they’re on the ground rather than walking or running. They forage in the leaf litter, often using both feet at once to scratch backwards, then pounce forward at anything they’ve uncovered. They also toss leaves aside with flicks of the head. During the breeding season the males are aggressive, chasing each other off their territories. “White-striped” forms tend to be more aggressive than “tan-striped” forms. Later in the breeding season this aggressiveness declines, and by fall White-throated Sparrows form large flocks that forage together. Hierarchies, or pecking orders, exist in these winter flocks. Males are typically dominant over females, but whether an individual is white-striped or tan-striped seems to have no bearing on status. When pairing up, white-striped forms tend to choose tan-striped individuals, and vice versa. Pairs stay together for the summer, but birds often choose new partners the next year. White-throated Sparrows take short flights between adjacent branches when foraging and fly with rapid wingbeats.

Adult Sexes Similar

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Additional Photos & Video

Adult Sexes Similar


All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.

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