While winter is the time of year most folks associate with many of our more colorful summer resident birds having flown south, there are a number of perhaps less showy but equally wonderful birds that join our year-round residents in local forests, woodlots and backyards, especially where there’s an abundance of shrubbery or thickets that provide cover.
Several sparrow species that breed farther to our north and west are annual winter residents, although cryptic coloration affords them camouflage amid dried leaves and the prevalent browns and grays that color the winter landscape.
One of my favorite winter species is the white-throated sparrow. Predominately cloaked in various shades of brown with a grayish breast and namesake white throat patch, these little birds spend the majority of their time on the ground near or beneath shrubby areas where they forage by hop-scratching through leaf litter for sustenance. In spite of their preference for remaining out of sight beneath cover, they have been one of the most common winter bird visitors in our area. One can scarcely pass a wooded area or thicket without hearing their querulous “seet” calls, or in the early morning hours hear bits and phrases or even a full a rendition of their sweetly whistled “ol’ Sam Peabody” songs emanating from a shrubby understory. Like most sparrows they are flocking birds and seek out the company of their own kind during the winter season.
There are two distinct forms of white-throated sparrows, designated as tan and white respectively. The terms refer to the color of the stripe above the bird’s eye. Apart from being a distinguishing trait, there’s also a curious aspect of the color forms regarding their behavior, in that white form birds choose tan form mates, and vice-versa. There are other behavioral differences apparently exhibited by males and females of the respective forms on their far northern breeding grounds.
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Sadly, like so many other bird species, these wonderful little sparrows appear to be declining in our area. The primary cause appears to be human alteration of the landscape, replacing dense thickets and shrubby areas with open spaces and turf grass. The diversity of all living things is directly related to the diversity of available habitats. As we degrade more of the landscape in turf grass monoculture with token plantings of non-native shrubs or trees, we can expect to see a less diverse assemblage of species occurring in our local landscapes.