This past week has seen an influx of birdlife. Songbirds and other birds are still filtering into the Northland either to remain here to breed and nest or as a stop-over for resting and recharging. It’s so good to observe the return of migrant wild birds.
One particular species of bird that I always look forward to seeing and hearing each year just showed up a short time ago, but has already retreated to their more preferred habitat a little further northeast—the white-throated sparrow. Even so, these handsome sparrows nest not all that far away in larger swampy and bog areas such as the expansive peatlands surrounding the Red Lakes and other similar habitats.
Widely known by their sweet whistled song that’s easily remembered by the phrase, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or “Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada,” the white-throated sparrow not only has a very distinctive song, but unique plumage markings, too. Indeed, while there are a few other sparrow species that have whitish throat patches, no other sparrow has as well defined a white throat-patch as does the aptly named white-throated sparrow.
Depending on the bird field identification guidebook you own or refer to, or what favorite bird website or app you consult or use, around 30 species of sparrows occur in North America alone. Among some of the more difficult species to identify, sparrows can be clumped into two separate groups: sparrows with streaked breasts and sparrows with unstreaked breasts. White-throated sparrows belong to the latter.
White-throated sparrows are closely related to three other species of sparrows, too—the white-crowned, golden-crowned, and Harris’ sparrows. These four “unstreaked breasted” species of sparrows are further categorized as “crowned” sparrows. And of these four, only the white-throated routinely breed and nest in Minnesota. Although white-crowned and Harris’ sparrows migrate through Minnesota on their way to their northern breeding grounds each year, you’ll likely never see a golden-crowned sparrow unless you visit California, the Pacific Northwest, and northward to Alaska.
About the golden-crowned sparrow, I was lucky to observe this beautiful species of sparrow on a wilderness trip to Alaska many years ago. I initially only heard the bird, and I remember thinking I was listening to the white-throated sparrow. But something was different. The song, though similar, was markedly shorter in duration. This bird's song was a clear whistle of three to five notes, descending in scale and is written as, "Oh-Dear-Me." It is also the only sparrow in the entire clan that sports a gold-colored crown.
But back to our Minnesota crowned sparrow, the white-throated sparrow. Here’s a sparrow with a couple of diagnostic physical characteristics that anyone can key in on and remember forever. Obviously the white-throat, which we talked about, but look also for the bright yellow lores in mature individuals. Their posture, too, is different from, say, the white-crowned sparrow. White-throated sparrows have an evident “short-necked,” less erect posture profile than that of white-crowned sparrows, which gives the species a sort of stocky appearance in comparison. Look also for the alternating black and white stripes on their heads.
When encountering a white-throated sparrow, you can usually be assured that others will be nearby. A gregarious, social bird, this species of sparrow flocks together in both small and large groups while foraging mostly on the ground or in low lying shrubs as they call softly to one another in low intensity calls and whistles. Watch also for the telltale double-hop-scratch behavior they do with their feet. This amusing action is common among many sparrows that feed on the ground.
Observing their feeding behavior brings to mind barnyard chickens or turkeys doing almost the same thing. In fact, if you didn’t see a flock of feeding white-throated sparrows but only heard them, you might think you were listening to something much bigger. Yes, they can be that loud.
White-throated sparrows are delightful and gorgeous little sparrows that are barely five inches long. We can count ourselves lucky to call these sparrows Minnesotans as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.