The most abundant of Tennessee's wintering sparrows, the White-throated Sparrow arrives by early October and departs by mid-May. It travels in flocks and can often be heard in winter singing its distinctive Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada song. And Canada is where it breeds, from the Yukon to Newfoundland south to the northeastern United States. In the winter, it is found in the eastern half of the United States south to northern Mexico, with some birds wintering along the Pacific Coast.
Description: Adult White-throated Sparrows are brown above and gray below, with a white throat bordered in black, a black and white striped head and a yellow blotch between the eye and bill. The "tan-striped morph" and first-year birds (August-March) look similar, but with tan and brown striped heads and a duller throat. Males and females are similar in appearance.
Weight: 0.91 oz
Voice: The song starts with 2 loud, clear, short whistled notes, followed by a series of triplet notes: Oh sweet Canada Canada Canada or Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. The call is a distinctive lispy tseep.
- White-crowned Sparrows lack the distinct white throat and yellow above the eyes, and have an all-pinkish bill.
Habitat: In winter and in migration White-throated Sparrows are found in dense cover, along woodlots, in fencerows, swamps, weedy fields, parks, and in urban areas.
Diet: Seeds, fruits, and insects. White-throated Sparrows frequently visit bird feeders.
Nesting and reproduction: The White-throated Sparrow has never been known to nest in Tennessee.
Status in Tennessee: This common statewide migrant and winter resident usually arrives by early October and departs by mid-May. While still abundant, White-throated Sparrows are apparently declining over much of the breeding range.
Dynamic map of White-throated Sparrow eBird observations in Tennessee
- White-throated Sparrows come in two color forms: white-striped and tan-striped. White-striped birds almost always mate with tan-striped birds, and visa versa. Interestingly, white-striped males tend to be more aggressive, and tan-striped females provide more parental care to the nestlings.
- White-throated Sparrows and the Dark-eyed Juncos look nothing alike but are known to occasionally mate with one another. They produce hybrid offspring that look like grayish, dully marked White-throated Sparrows with white outer tail feathers.
- Birds in cold climates have more feathers in the winter than in the summer. One study found that White-throated Sparrows have 40% more contour (body) feathers in winter; in summer, they have about 1,500 contour feathers and 2,500 in winter.
Obsolete English Names: White-throated Finch
Best places to see in Tennessee: White-throated Sparrows are found in Tennessee during the non-breeding season, arriving in early October and departing by mid-May. They can be found in every county of the state in a variety of shrubby habitats including weedy and brushy fields, brushy woodland thickets, along woodland edges, and in suburban areas with sufficient cover.
For more information:
Falls, J. B. and J. G. Kopachena. 1994. White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis), The Birds of North America, No. 128 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D.C.
Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. of Tennessee Press, Knoxville.
Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.