White-Throated Sparrow (zontrichia albicollis)

A "white-striped" White-throated Sparrow. Photo: David Speiser


This article appears in the fall 2022 issue of The Urban Audubon.

By Rebecca Minardi

A few years ago, I was biking in downtown Detroit when I spotted a bird in distress. It was peak spring migration, and the White-throated Sparrow sat hunched in the middle of a busy street, looking dazed. I watched her weakly fly up and bump the side of an idling bus. As she huddled on the pavement again, I ran toward her, hoping to scoop her up before she was run over. A police officer passed as I tried to grab her, and he kindly blocked traffic as I wrapped her gently in a scarf, placed her in my bike basket, and pedaled home. I was triumphant as she recovered and flew away later that afternoon.

The White-throated Sparrow, sometimes overshadowed by showier songbirds, is a peculiar and wonderful species. At about 6.5 inches in length, the bird is a large, plump sparrow with a long tail. Its face pattern is often striking, marked by a bright white throat, yellow eye spots, and a jaunty black and white striped crown. Some members of the species, however, are “tan-striped,” and lack the bright white of their more dazzling kin. (See both forms below, and another “white-striped” bird on the cover.) These distinct “white-striped” and “tan-striped” color morphs are maintained because of a particular pattern of mating preference: males of both morphs tend to choose white-striped females, while females prefer tan-striped males. (Tan-striped birds are the less aggressive of the two, and some researchers posit that less aggressive males make better fathers!)

“Tan-striped” (inset) and “white-striped” White-throated Sparrows. Large photo: César A. Castillo; inset photo: Oliver Timm/CC BY-SA 2.0
White-throated Sparrows are short-distance migrants, wintering throughout the eastern lower 48 and breeding in the upper Midwest and Northeast, as well as across Canada. In parts of New England and New York, the species may be present year round. These gregarious sparrows often form surprisingly large flocks during migration, foraging mostly on the ground as they hop about looking for seeds and insects. They seem to appear almost out of thin air when startled, bouncing into shrubs from leaf litter or grass.

The White-throated Sparrow nests on or just above the ground. Its song, heard not just on nesting territory but also during migration and in the winter months, is clear and poignant, bubbling up from thickets to strike any birder’s heart with joy. Described variously as “Old Sam Peabody . . . Peabody . . . Peabody” or “Oh Sweet Canada . . . Canada . . . Canada,” the song is a much studied example of shifting bird “culture”: in 1999, researchers recorded a new song variant, in which the traditional triplets (“Canada”) had been shortened to doublets (“Cana”). This song variant started in Western Canada and spread thousands of miles eastward over the past two decades, possibly aided by the fact that eastern birds winter in proximity to western birds—and heard this catchy new song version before heading back north to breed. From its coloration to its song, this species is surprising.

Sadly, my brush with this beautiful and wild bird on the streets of Detroit may not have ended as well as I’d hoped. While some birds may be simply stunned after a collision (usually against windows), I’ve learned that many later succumb to their injuries, and are best looked after by a rehabilitator. Perhaps because they often forage on or near the ground, White-throated Sparrows are particularly prone to window strikes: according to NYC Bird Alliance’s Project Safe Flight data, they are the most frequent collision victims in New York City.

According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, White-throated Sparrow populations declined by about 35 percent between 1966 and 2014 over most of the bird’s range, but declined 63 percent in the U.S. In addition to deaths from collisions, contributors to the decline may include habitat loss and pesticide use on the birds’ nesting grounds.

In New York City, where collisions pose the greatest threat to this winter visitor, there are thankfully myriad ways we can help. We can turn both indoor and outdoor lights off at night, especially in tall buildings encased in glass, and always during migration. We can retrofit our windows with screens, paint, markings or dangling string to break up the reflections in the glass. NYC Bird Alliance has helped accomplish several recent successes along these lines on a large scale: landmark bird-friendly building legislation in 2020, and Lights Out legislation in 2021. Let’s keep working at it, to ensure we continue to hear the haunting strains of White-throated Sparrows every spring—no matter how much their songs change through the years.

Learn more about frequent window-collision victims and how to help them at nycaudubon.org/project-safe-flight.

In the spring, the White-throated Sparrow stops through New York City on its way to breed across the northeastern U.S. and Canada, where it builds a grass-lined nest on or near the ground. Comprehensive bird-friendly design and Lights Out laws will give the millions of young sparrows that migrate south in the fall a better chance to return and raise their own families. Photo: Kent McFarland/CC BY-NC 2.0