One more song before winter

Have you noticed a small brown sparrow with a white throat, yellow lore and black head stripe feeding on the ground beneath your feeders? Chances are this is the white-throated sparrow.

White-throated sparrows typically breed in northern New England and Canada. They spend the non-breeding season here in Connecticut and to our south.

White-throated sparrows begin their journey south just about when the first sleety snow flakes fly up north and the leaves have all fallen off. They first appeared at my feeder on Oct. 17. Now, in November there are dozens more of them. I have eagerly awaited their arrival.

Their song is so sweet that once you hear it, it will stay with you forever. Many say it isn't possible to hear this fine music in the crisp fall air - only in spring and summer. Yet, I hear it, nonetheless, coming from the morning mist and the hidden corners of the dusk. It stops me in my tracks each time and takes me far away to their breeding range where the spruce forests seem endless, and the meandering trout streams seep into unnamed moose bogs.

There, they sing clear with a wavering plaintive melody, "Oh Canada, Canada, Canada." You can hear them everywhere in good habitat, but white-throated sparrows are rather secretive within their breeding range. They stay hidden in the willows and spruce that line the wetlands, streams, meadows and bogs where they nest.

The female builds a nest on or close to the ground, constructed of grass, fine rootlets and sometimes deer hair. She will lay between one and six eggs. Concealed on all but one side, the hidden nest will allow her to incubate her lilac colored eggs for two weeks. White-throated sparrows become more conspicuous after the breeding season.

In Connecticut, as elsewhere in the winter, they seem to be somewhat tame. Still, many birders overlook them in their fascination with the more brilliant colored birds. Ornithologists, however, have not overlooked these birds, but instead have studied them closely because they display a rare genetically based polymorphism. If you look closely you will notice white-throated sparrows have two different color phases.

White proso millet and sunflower chips will lure in these birds when the seed is scattered on the ground. A platform feeder will work, too. Keep the snow from covering the seed by constructing a small lean-to, and make sure there is cover nearby to allow escape from predators.

Soon the white-knuckled grip of winter will silence the urge for the sparrow to sing and we will be left with only their "tseep, tseep" call notes as the snow silently falls. Then, on some cool April day, the sweet melancholy song of the white-throated sparrow will again fill the dusk, and its melody will speak of the far north. They will fly north by the end of that month.

Robert Tougias is a Colchester birding author who is available for presentations. You can reach him at rtougias@snet.net">rtougias@snet.net.

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