A white-throated sparrow is a rare bird to me. It has always been a rare bird to me. Its nesting range is Massachusetts and northern New York north into the evergreen forests of northern Canada, well north of my home in northern Iowa when I was a boy or my home now in northern Indiana. Its winter range is south of Iowa and Indiana, the southern states of the U.S. and farther south. I saw a white-throated sparrow a few times in Iowa when I was a boy and I’ve seen a white-throated sparrow a few times in Indiana. Each time has been a special sighting. I haven’t seen a white-throated sparrow recently, but I have seen a magazine article about it and that prompted me to write about it.
A white-throated sparrow is a strikingly marked bird. It’s brown on the back wings and tail, like other sparrows, but it has a white throat, of course, a touch of yellow between each eye and the bill, a white line from each eye to the back of the head, and another white line on the top of its head.
Though the white-throated sparrow is striking in appearance I remember it as much for its call as the way it looks, two whistled notes, then three notes repeated three times. To American birders, most of them anyway, a white-throat is calling “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Canadians have a different connotation of the white-throated sparrow’s call. To a Canadian it’s calling “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” There’s yet a third version for the white-throated sparrows call. This one, “Sow wheat Peverly, Peverly, Peverly,” is attributed to a farmer, naturally named Peverly, who was deciding whether to plant wheat or some other crop. He did plant wheat, according to folklore, had a bumper crop, and has been guided by the white-throated sparrow every year since. And what has he done when he hasn’t heard a white-throat? Planted something other than wheat, I assume.
In those evergreen forests where they nest, white-throated sparrows spend much of the time on the ground, like towhees. There they scratch at the vegetation and fallen leaves and feed on the seeds and insects they uncover. A diet of seeds, largely weed seeds, and insects makes it a useful bird to us.
White-throated sparrows feed on the ground and nest on the ground, usually, often in burnt over clearings. Occasionally, I read, a pair of white-throats will nest in a low bush, usually along a stream or the border a of marsh. The nest is made of coarse grass and strips of bark and moss and lined with grass. A clutch is four or five eggs.
I’ve never seen a white-throated sparrow’s nest. I’ve never seen a white-throated sparrow in a forest. When I’ve seen a white-throat its always been on one of my bird feeders or on the ground beneath a feeder.
There’s another sparrow that’s very similar to the white-throated. It too has a white throat and a white line behind each eye and white on top of its head, a sparrow-like brown streaked back and wings and a brown tail. It’s also a northern nester, even farther north in eastern Canada than the white-throat. In the west, however, particularly in the Rocky Mountains, it nests farther south.
Like the white-throated sparrow I’ve only seen a white-crowned sparrow a few times. When I have seen a white-throat or a white-crown it has been spring or fall and either on one of my bird feeders or on the ground near one of my feeders.
How I’d like to see a white-throated sparrow, or a white-crowned. Both are little brown jobs, like all sparrows, but these two have splashes of white on the throat and head. These two nest farther north than my home and winter farther south. I have seen both but only on rarely in spring or fall.