Every spring, the northern woods are filled with the echoing, whistled songs of white-throated sparrows. During the winter, these boreal forest songbirds migrate southward, and many of them pass the colder months with us in New England. In all seasons, white-throated sparrows are denizens of brushy areas with plenty of undergrowth to hide in.
White-throated sparrows are fairly large (just shy of 7” long, on average), heavy-bodied sparrows, and they show a significant reddish cast to their brown wing and back feathers. Some individuals have tan stripes on the crown, while others show white stripes, but all adults share the snow-white throat patch for which the species is named.
Their grayish breasts show faint streaks, or none at all. At close range, two bright yellow spots just behind the bill and in front of the eyes (the “lores”) are sometimes visible.
White-throated sparrows are not uncommon visitors to Massachusetts in the winter-time, and they are most often encountered either singly or as part of a mixed flock, often with dark-eyed juncos. They will take seeds from feeders (or, more often, the ground below feeders), but they will seldom come out to feed unless there is a thicket or hedge nearby for them to shelter in.
Their song is very distinctive: a slow, clear whistling following the cadence Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody!
Winter numbers of white-throated sparrows seem to be stable or increasing in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our breeding birds. Loss of young forest and shrubland habitat on which white-throated sparrows depend has caused this species to decline considerably as a breeder in Massachusetts. Learn more in the Breeding Bird Atlas 2.