The hummingbirds have migrated south, ducks are flying overhead, and dark-eyed juncos (Junco hyemalis) began arriving a week ago. Today I spotted a couple of white-throated sparrows. All of this signals that winter is knocking at our door.
Sparrow identification can be tough. Many of our native sparrows look very similar, and often there is no glaring difference in behaviors. However, the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) may be considered an exception to this identification dilemma.
The time of year is a good clue. White-throated sparrows are migratory, and spend the non-breeding season (late fall and winter) in Arkansas, as well as the rest of the eastern and south-central United States. Their pattern of arrival tends to be what I have observed over the course of the last week. White-throated sparrows start filtering in not long after the arrival of dark-eyed juncos.
Feather color and pattern also aid in identification. A white throat patch (hence the name, white-throated sparrow) between the bill and the gray breast is very apparent. In the "white-striped" form of this species, a white patch on the side of the head highlights a bright yellow spot located between the base of the gray bill and the eye. On the other hand, there is a "tan-striped" form of white-throated sparrow, and the yellow spot is less noticeable and difficult to see because the white patch near the eye is absent. Additionally, a white and black striped crown will be observed in the "white-striped" form, and a brown and black striped crown is present in the "tan-striped" form. I have observed and recorded both forms in Arkansas, in the field and at home. Anecdotally, the "white-striped" form is more prevalent every year.
The call of the white-throated sparrow is described as a song sing a that sounds like "Oh-sweet-canada-canada" or "Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody". One thing is certain. If you hear its beautiful and distinct call, you'll know white-throated sparrows are around without ever seeing them!
(This blog was UPDATED on 22 Oct 2023)