Bird Watcher's General Store

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White-Throated Sparrow


Dear Bird Folks:

Lately my yard has been full of little birds that look like chipmunks. I think they are some kind of sparrows. Any idea what kind of sparrows have stripes on their heads like chipmunks?

-Ben, Harwich


Thanks Ben,

Thanks for asking a question about a mystery bird with such a lousy clue. Chipmunk head, eh? Swell. At last count we had over a trillion different species of sparrows and most of them have striped heads. You know what this means don’t you? It means it’s writer’s choice. I can write about any sparrow that I want and you can’t do anything about it. That will teach you to give me such a lousy clue.

Here is what I think your mysterious chipmunk-headed birds are, I think you have White-throated Sparrows. Why? Because white-throats are sparrows, they have striped heads and they have have invaded Cape Cod big time these last few weeks. Also, even though these little sparrows are called white-throated, it is their crowns, or in your case, chipmunk heads, that makes them unique.

If you were to look in your field guide you will notice that besides their white throats, White-throated Sparrows have a handsome striped crown. In fact, they have two kinds of striped crowns (this gets confusing, so pay attention). Some birds have white and black striped crowns, while others have tan and black striped crowns. Are you with me so far? Half the population has white stripes and the other half has tan stripes. Many people, including some birders, carelessly assume that the flashy white striped birds are all males and the dull headed birds are females. Or they thought that the dull headed birds were immature. Wrong! A White-throated Sparrow can hatch out with either a white or dull crown and it has nothing to do with their age, sex or hairdresser.

Now here is where it gets even weirder. White-throats are one of the most liberal birds on the planet, they love mixed marriages. Birds with the same hair color rarely mate. White-striped males prefer tan-headed females and tan-headed males seek out white-striped females. And believe it or not, their system works. They all get along. Thus making the White-throated Sparrows one of our most successful sparrow species.

Although they don’t nest on the Cape, white-throats (or white-troats if you are from Brooklyn) can be found here in any season but summer. They readily come to our yards and can be found scratching the ground under our bird feeders. An even more amazing fact about this little bird is that it actually eats mixed birdseed. You know, that crap that they sell in the grocery store and all of the other birds kick out of the feeder. Well these guys eat it and like it. Go figure.

As you noticed, Ben, white-throats can move through our area in huge numbers. Many people report them in their yard this time of year. A few years ago I was taking a late afternoon stroll and the ground around me was boiling with hundreds and hundreds of White-throated Sparrows. They were chowing through the woods like locusts, eating whatever they could find in the fading sunlight before they set off on their night-time migration north.

Finally, you should know that white-throats are very inquisitive birds. They respond to a sound that birders make called “pishing”. The next time you see your sparrows in a bush, walk over to the bush and say “pish” loudly (really) and the birds will pop right up on the branches to check you out. It really works and it is a great way to get good looks at White-throated Sparrows. However, if someone asks what you are doing, don’t say that you are “pishing in the bushes”.