Original description: Fringilla albicollis Gmelin 1789
Taxonomic history in AOU/AOS Check-list
AOU 1 (1886): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 2 (1895): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 3 (1910): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 4 (1931): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 5 (1957): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 6 (1983): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
AOU 7 (1998): White-throated Sparrow, Zonotrichia albicollis
George Edwards, as was his custom, did not assign his new sparrow a formal Latin name. His account served as the source for Mathurin Brisson, however, who in the appendix to his Ornithologie called the bird “le moineau de Pensilvanie,” Passer pensilvanicus. Johann Friedrich Gmelin knew and cited Brisson’s account, but he declined to adopt the French ornithologist’s Latin name. Instead, he translated Edwards’s (and Bartram’s) English name as Fringilla albicollis, publishing that name in his edition of the Systema naturae. Based on a description in Pennant of a bird from New York, Gmelin’s Fringilla striata—“streaked finch”—also refers almost certainly to this species, which is strongly marked below in both juvenile and, often, formative plumages.
That last name was quickly subsumed, but the first two—the one older by nearly thirty years, the other bearing the posthumous stamp of Linnaeus—remained current in ornithological works through the first half of the nineteenth century. Where Alexander Wilson had chosen to use Gmelin’s binomial in the American Ornithology, his albicollis was “corrected back” to pennsylvanica in a subsequent edition of Wilson’s workby William Jardine and Charles Bonaparte. Bonaparte himself used both, arguing first for the priority of pensylvanica but then definitively adopting albicollis in his Conspectus generum. Audubon asserted the validity of pennsylvanica in every one of his publications, and Prince Maximilian used it as late as 1858 for the birds he had seen on his North American tour a quarter of a century earlier.
It was in that same year of 1858 that Spencer Baird pronounced Brisson’s species name invalid:
“As Brisson’s nomenclature is not binomial, and his names merely literal translation into Latin from the French vernacular… I have followed Cabanis, Bonaparte, and most modern authors in rejecting them altogether.”
Today, Brisson’s generic names have been re-admitted to use in ornithological nomenclature, but his species epithets are universally accounted invalid, making Gmelin’s albicollis the only name in proper use for this species.
The history of the White-throated Sparrow’s generic assignment is briefer. First assigned to the expansive finch genus Fringilla, the White-throated was moved by William Swainson into his new genus Zonotrichia (“banded hair”) in 1831, where it was listed among the type species of the genus.
Relationships: Once believed to form a superspecies with the Golden-crowned Sparrow, the White-throated Sparrow is now deemed most closely related to the Harris Sparrow. Those three species share the genus Zonotrichia with the White-crowned and the widespread tropical Rufous-collared Sparrows.
Zonotrichia is in turn most closely related to the juncos, an unsurprising circumstance given the frequency with which apparent hybrids between the members of the two genera are observed. The remaining members of this well-defined clade are the American Tree Sparrow and the Fox Sparrows.
IUCN Conservation Status: Of least concern
The threats to this species’ continued abundance are those encountered by many of North America’s migratory songbirds: feral and free-roaming housecats, collisions with windows and illuminated buildings, and environmental toxins. Though this species and a number of other forest-edge passerellids may benefit locally from timbering and patchwork clearing of forests, larger-scale replacement of woodlands by agricultural and urban development deprives White-throated Sparrows of nesting, roosting, and feeding sites.
Behavior: The White-throated Sparrow is usually notably shyer than the Golden-crowned and Harris Sparrows, more often feeding in the leaf litter of the woodland floor than on field edges and lawns; in suburban areas, it is easily drawn to bird feeders as long as there is immediately adjacent cover, into which they flee in low, swooping flight when disturbed. In longer-distance flight across a clearing or lawn, they are obviously large, long-tailed, pudgy, and rich brown, recalling large and colorful Song Sparrows.
Feeding birds can go unnoticed on the shady forest floor, but their hunch-backed shuffling and scratching through dead leaves reveals their presence. White-throated Sparrows forage with the familiar double-scratch, jumping forward then quickly dragging the toes back through the vegetation to turn up seeds and small insects. At feeders, they prefer white millet and other small seeds, but will also accept sunflower seeds and even crumbled suet.
Voice: The most commonly heard calls in this species include a long, slightly wavering creeper- or kinglet-like seee, often given by birds feeding invisible in dense brush or understory; and a loud, somewhat liquid chlink, fuller and rounder than the corresponding note of the White-crowned Sparrow, often given by alert birds perched atop a thicket. Both the chlink note and a repeated two-syllable ch-chink in dotted rhythm are often heard at dusk as flocks assemble to roost.
The song of the White-throated Sparrow is one of the most easily learned of passerellid songs, a simple phrase of clear whistles. The first note (or, more rarely, the first two notes) are long and tentative; this is followed by a series of shorter, faster whistles, usually grouped into triplets or dotted triplets but sometimes into groups of two. The long introductory note is usually on more or less a single pitch, but it may be slurred up or down in some birds. The tone is slightly breathy, usually more so than in the Harris Sparrow or the Golden-crowned Sparrow, and buzzy notes like those of a White-crowned Sparrow are very infrequent. There is considerable individual variation, and some geographic variation, in song, with at least fifteen different patterns recognized by one study; most individuals sing only one pattern, though, and the tone and combination of a long note or notes with hurried triplets are distinctive no matter what pattern a given bird prefers.
Over the course of a twelve-year study of this species, Borror and Gunn observed significant changes in the frequency and distribution of song patterns, some of which declined nearly to extinction in some areas. They suggested that the song types behind classic transcriptions such as “hard times, Canada, Canada, Canada” and “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” clearly comprising two long introductory notes and a series of three triplet groups, were relatively common in the nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries but had died out over much of the species’ range by the mid-1960s, when only three of the 711 White-throated Sparrows studied still sang that venerable melody.
Detailed description and measurements drawn from standard reference works
Adult: Tail feathers rusty brown with paler brown edges. Upper tail coverts and rump light unstreaked olive brown. Back and scapulars rusty brown, the feathers with neat black shaft streaks and pale brownish or grayish edges on outer web. Primaries and secondaries dark grayish brown, edged slightly richer brown; outermost primaries with very fine whitish gray edges. Tertials blackish with broad chestnut edges on outer web. Greater coverts gray on inner web, blackish on outer, with broad brown to chestnut edges and large white tips. Median coverts blackish with large white tips. Marginal coverts of upper wing olive-gray, of under wing yellow. Nape brown with scattered fine dark brown streaks.
Under tail coverts dull white with concealed darker shaft streaks. Vent and center of belly dull white. Flanks pale brownish with variable blurry blackish or dark brown streaking. Breast pale gray with variable brown streaking, gathering into central breast splotch on heavily marked birds. Throat dull white, brighter in alternate plumage and in white-striped birds; clearly set off by very fine dark gray line from gray of upper breast. In most white-striped birds, little or no lateral throat stripe, leaving throat and white jaw stripe continuous; in most tan-striped birds, distinct black lateral throat stripe dividing throat from white jaw stripe. Jaw stripe divided from gray or brownish gray ear coverts by narrow blackish whisker.
Crown with narrow whitish median stripe, brighter white in white-striped birds and tinged buff or brown in basic plumage, and with broad lateral crown stripes dark brown with black streaks, purer and darker black in white-striped birds. Wide pale supercilium buffy brown or, in white-striped birds, clear white ear coverts, flaring towards nape. Forepart of supercilium dull brown-golden to bright yellow. Brown or blackish eye line reaches from nape through eye narrowly to base of bill; lore gray or brownish gray. Ear coverts dull brownish gray or, in alternate plumage, gray to bright gray. Freckled eye ring above and below eye, interrupted by eye line.
Tarsus and toes pinkish yellow. Thick bill blackish gray above and below, slightly paler at base. Immature birds often retain trace of fleshy yellow gape into autumn.
Juvenile: Tail feathers rusty brown with paler brown edges. Upper tail coverts and rump light olive brown. Back and scapulars rusty brown, the feathers with neat black shaft streaks and pale brownish or grayish edges on outer web. Primaries and secondaries dark grayish brown, edged slightly richer brown; outermost primaries with very fine whitish gray edges. Tertials blackish with broad chestnut edges on outer web. Greater coverts gray on inner web, blackish on outer, with broad brown to chestnut edges and large white tips. Median coverts blackish with large white tips. Marginal coverts of upper wing olive-gray, of under wing yellow. Nape brown with scattered dark brown streaks.
Under tail coverts dull buffy with darker shaft streaks. Vent and center of belly buffy white with a few scattered streaks or spots. Flanks buffy brown with heavy blackish or dark brown streaking. Breast buffy brown with blackish streaking, often heaviest at center of breast and forming central breast splotch. Throat dull buffy or whitish with scattered small streaks and fairly clearly set off from gray of upper breast. Distinct black lateral throat stripe dividing throat from buffy jaw stripe. Jaw stripe divided from brownish gray ear coverts by narrow blackish whisker.
Crown warm brown with narrow buffy median stripe. Wide pale supercilium buffy brown with fine streaking; uniform in color to above lore. Blackish eye line reaches from nape through eye narrowly to base of bill; lore brownish gray. Ear coverts dull brownish gray. Faint freckled eye ring above and below eye, interrupted by eye line.
Tarsus and toes brownish yellow. Thick bill blackish gray above and below, slightly paler at base. Immature birds often retain trace of juvenile’s fleshy yellow gape into autumn.
Length 150-177 mm (5.9-7.0 inches)
Wing chord 70-77 mm (2.8-3.0 inches)
Tail 68-76 mm (2.7-3.0 inches)
Mass 26 g