For the Birds Radio Program: White-throated Sparrow

Original Air Date: May 17, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about the chipmunk of the bird world. 3:30

Audio missing


It’s May, and Old Sam Peabody is ringing through the northwoods again. The White-throated Sparrow is the stripe-headed chipmunk of the bird world, spending its days on the forest floor, scratching the ground for seeds, acting like and residing in the habitat of the chipmunk that it so resembles. The clear, loud whistle that carries so well on the forest floor lent the white-throat many nicknames, from the Peabody bird to the widow bird, presumably wailing about her poor old Sam Peabody, and since about half of all females sing, this isn’t as inappropriate as it would be in a species in which only males sing. I managed to find 29 different nicknames for the white-throat , including my favorite, the one some French Canadians call it, the Rossignol. My only association with the word Rossignol was from my cross-country skis, and I liked the image of a little white-throat on long, slender skis, but in reality the moniker means nightingale. If only my skis sounded so sweet.

White-throats move about in flocks on migration, and when a large group of them visits a feeding station, the ground seems to teem with life. Many of them occasionally sit in feeders, but they definitely prefer keeping their feet firmly on the ground, where they spend most of their lives. They do like shrubs or tangles near a feeder–at the slightest hint of danger they hustle into it. They sit on a low branch while they sing, but hold still. Somehow their song leads us to look upwards, so most of the people who enjoy their song seldom if ever actually see them in the act of singing.

White throats come in two varieties. One group has bold black and white stripes on its head, the other has duller black and tan stripes. For years many ornithologists believed that the males were the boldly colored ones, and the females the duller tan ones, but now scientists realize that the two forms are merely color morphs, like humans with brown or blue eyes. Males of both color forms can sing, but, oddly, so do females with white head stripes. The saying that opposites attract is particularly appropriate for white throats, which almost always select the opposite color form for mates, so white-striped males prefer tan-striped females, and tan-striped males prefer white-striped females.

Although just about everyone recognizes the white-throat song, and most people with feeders get them at least during part of migration, most people don’t develop a personal attachment to this little bird, so most bird books don’t give the species much space. I like watching them, myself, but it takes some patience to follow them around because they’ re so self-conscious–the moment we get too close they zip into a tangle. But our patience is rewarded as we finally see one of the boldly patterned white-striped individuals burst into song–we are ever amazed that such a big sound emanates from so tiny a mouth . The whistle is easily imitated, and if we do even a half­ way credible job, they come closer to check us out. Exchanging pleasantries with these little treasures makes spring mornings all the more delightful.