For the Birds Radio Program: National Sparrow Awareness Week: White-throated Sparrow

Original Air Date: May 3, 1989

Today Laura Erickson talks about the bird that sings Old Sam Peabody. (4:02) (recast later but I don’t know the date–that one’s modified script is filed as this date.)

Audio missing


White-throated Sparrow

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Early last week the earliest of the White-throated Sparrows blew into Duluth on strong winds. The song of this elegant little bird is one of the true joys of spring in the Northland. People in the United States interpret the rhythm as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody”—but the moment the birds cross the border they change their tune to “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” Although the rhythm is fairly constant, the song can go up or down in pitch.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Be sure not to confuse the White-throat’s song with the Black-capped Chickadee’s “Fee bee bee” spring song.

(Recording of a Black-capped Chickadee)

The white bib on these medium-sized sparrows is not as conspicuous as the black-and-white stripes on the head of many of them, but at least the white throat is visible in all plumages. Many White-throats have tan head stripes, but currently ornithologists haven’t been able to reach a consensus about whether the tan-striped birds are females, a different race, or just a color form like gray and red Ruffed Grouse.

White-throated Sparrows often visit feeders in large flocks. It’s possible at a good feeding station to see 50 or more scratching the ground in their busy way at the peak of migration. They come to feeders with sunflower alone, but they also feed on mixed bird seed. Like most sparrows, they seldom alight in the feeder itself, but they are good at picking up the seeds dropped by other birds. It’s important to keep dropped seeds raked up once the days grow warm enough for mold to grow on spilled seed, or these birds are likely to be infected with dangerous diseases.

Although most Minnesotans and Wisconsinites think of the White-throat as a migrant, it breeds here in the Northland, and we can hear it’s matchless song throughout June and July in bogs and spruce woods. Migrants come to feeders up here through early June. Adults feed their growing young insects, and usually are too busy to come in to feeders during July, but once their young are on their own the adults return to feeders in late August. If sparrows are nesting near an open feeding station, the parents will occasionally take a quick break from their duties and pig out, but they aren’t usually regular visitors in the summer.

Unlike most sparrows, which sing from an exposed perch, white-throats usually sing on low branches, but with practice it isn’t too hard to actually see the singing bird. It’s also easy to get one to respond to your whistle, and start a duet going. That’s a fun game during migration, but it’s not a good idea in the woods by mid-May when birds are defending territory—you can stress them out during a vulnerable period.

White-throats are valuable simply because they are. But many ornithological books seem to be written with the philosophy that the author must somehow justify a species’ existence with evidence that the bird provides mankind with a specific service. In the case of White-throats they cite the fact that they eat ragweed seeds. These celestial navigators don’t eat ragweed, or even sing their lovely song, to justify their existence to us. They live their quiet lives from day to day, avoiding civilization as well as Huck Finn did, singing not because they have an answer, but because they have a song.

(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”