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Our Backyard Birds: The White-throated Sparrow

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A  Portrait of a White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)
White-throated Sparrow Portrait

Our Backyard Birds:

The White-throated Sparrow

(Zonotrichia albicollis)



White-throated Sparrows eat the seeds of grasses and weeds. In summer they eat large numbers of insects that they catch on the forest floor or, occasionally on quick flights out from low vegetation. Parents feed their nestlings exclusively insects. During winter, White-throated Sparrows readily visit bird feeders for millet and black oil sunflower seeds. In spring they eat the tender buds, blossoms, and new seeds.


The White-throated sparrow primarily feeds on the ground but will also visit platform and hopper feeders.


The White-throated Sparrow has a plump body, a rounded head, and a long, notched tail. Both males and females share a similar appearance, with brown back and wings having darker brown and white streaks, which help them to camouflage while foraging. Their underparts are pale gray with some darker streaks. The bird’s head and face are the most distinctive features, with a bold pattern of black and white stripes on the crown and a white patch on their throat. In front of each eye, they have small yellow patches called "lores", which add a touch of color to their facial features. They have a black stripe through their eye, and depending on the morph, they have a white or tan stripe above it.


Appearing in dizzying varieties of white, tan, red, brown, striped, spotted, and crowned, sparrows can confuse even the most seasoned birders. Fortunately, the White-throated Sparrow has a bright white throat, aiding any birder in a confident ID. White-throated Sparrows are frequent winter visitors to backyard feeders here in Texas. This sparrow may be common to backyards, but their color variation and strange genetics suggest they are anything but ordinary.  White-throated Sparrows are one of North America's most common and abundant sparrow species, wintering primarily in the United States and summering throughout Canada and parts of the Northeast. 

As for those lores, White-throated Sparrows are unable to produce yellow, so the birds depend on a diet rich in carotenoids—pigments manufactured by plants—to provide this golden hue. Their fall and winter diet of seeds and fruit—especially wild cranberries, blueberries, and grapes—give the sparrows a carotenoid boost.

Like several other bird species, White-throated Sparrows boast two color morphs: Some individuals sport broad tan stripes on their heads, and others have distinct white stripes. The discovery of the two morphs in adults—rather than them just being a matter of plumage variation or maturity. Males and females can be tan-striped or white-striped, and they fully overlap in their breeding and wintering areas.

A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) in winter.
White-throated Sparrow in winter.

White-throated Sparrows are unique not only in their appearance but also in their behavior. The color morphs of these sparrows behave differently from each other which sets them apart from other species. Males with white stripes have higher testosterone levels and tend to be more aggressive, while also attracting more females. On the other hand, tan-striped males are more nurturing and shine in the parental category. This intriguing difference in behavior and mating preferences is due to the genetics that effectively create four "sexes" in White-throated Sparrows: white-striped males, white-striped females, tan-striped males, and tan-striped females.

  Did you happen to spot a White-throated Sparrow that looks a little different? You might not be wrong in thinking so, as almost 10 percent of bird species interbreed. Even though White-throated Sparrows usually mate with birds who have the same stripe color as them, they occasionally breed with Dark-eyed Juncos. These pairings can result in healthy offspring that look like gray, White-throated Sparrows. These birds' songs are a combination of a junco's trill and the "Canada" notes of the White-throated Sparrow.

A White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) on a barbed-wire fence.
White-throated Sparrow in Texas

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the White-throated sparrows and how you can attract them to your backyard. If this is your first time visiting my website or reading one of my blog posts, welcome, and thank you for joining us. Please subscribe here so you can receive updates on the next blog posts on Backyard Birding. You will also receive occasional discounts and newsletters. Remember to follow the Nature First and Leave No Trace principles and always strive to leave places better than you found them. Please share this blog post with your friends and family who have a love for birds, bird photography, or backyard birding.


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