Birds of the Glebe

The White-throated Sparrow is a pretty little bird we commonly see either foraging on the ground or in low-lying shrubbery and bushes.   Photo: Jeanette Rive

White-throated sparrow – a complex little bird

By Jeanette Rive

“It’s just a sparrow” we so often say when noticing one of the little, often nondescript brown birds at our feeders, scrabbling on the ground or hopping around the bushes along the Canal.

However, there is so much more to sparrows once we start looking carefully. Our most commonly seen sparrow is the House Sparrow which is larger than most other sparrows. They belong to the group known as Old World sparrows, originating in Europe and found throughout Asia and Africa. They were introduced to North America in Brooklyn, New York, in 1851 and have adapted very successfully to urban life everywhere.

Most of the other little sparrows we see are called New World sparrows. They are genetically closer to finches and buntings than to Old World sparrows. These little sparrows that live and breed in our area include the White-throated, Chipping and Song sparrows – it’s easy to just group them all under “sparrows” though they all have different markings and characteristics.

The White-throated is the little sparrow we most commonly see, often foraging on the ground or in low-lying shrubbery and bushes. It’s a pretty little bird, about 15-19 cm long with a 23 cm wingspan. Interestingly, it is found in two forms, genetically different – either with striking white stripes along the head or with brown and tan stripes, mostly distinguishable during breeding season.

The area between the eye and the bill on the side of a bird’s head is called the lore. In the White-throated sparrow, it is yellow, the result of pigmentation called carotenoids which is found in the plants the birds eat. This pigmentation is responsible for the red, yellow and orange colouring in birds.

White-throated Sparrow pairing can be very complicated. Research has shown that the birds with white and black stripes are more aggressive, both males and females. The tan-brown-striped birds are more nurturing. It seems that the females of both types prefer the tan-brown-striped males for mating but since the white-striped birds are more pushy, those females get the choice of mates! So the white-striped males are left with the tan-brown-striped mates 95 per cent of the time. When a pairing of the same type happens, child-rearing is not very successful – the white-striped birds are aggressive with each other, and the tan-brown-striped birds don’t defend their territory strongly enough from predators.

The females build a nest, close to or on the ground or in the roots of an upturned tree. It’s built up with bits of moss woven with twigs, wood chips and grasses; the walls are then lined with fine grass, small roots and even deer hair. It is hidden from above by leaves, and there is only one entrance at the side. Four or five pale blue eggs are laid, then incubated by the female for about 21 days. The nestlings leave the nest after eight or nine days although they are fed by the parents for the next few weeks. Unlike the vegetarian American Goldfinch, sparrow hatchlings are fed almost exclusively insects.

In ancient Greek mythology, sparrows were considered a symbol of love. It was the sacred bird of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, symbolizing true love and a spiritual connection. However, in Europe, sparrows were considered a death omen.

When you are raking leaves and getting your garden ready for winter, do leave some vegetation and brush for the little birds and critters who need shelter in winter.

Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and long-time Glebe Report proofreader.

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