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Speaking of Nature

Absence of white-throated sparrows may be cause for concern

Sunday, April 7, 2013
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Speaking of Nature


I saw this particular white-throated sparrow while out birding with my brother about a year ago.  It popped up out of a thicket to perch on a rose bush and bask in the sun. (Bill Danielson)
I saw this particular white-throated sparrow while out birding with my brother about a year ago. It popped up out of a thicket to perch on a rose bush and bask in the sun. (Bill Danielson)

I am writing to you today to ask for your help. A bird has been completely absent from my yard this winter, and I am a little unsettled by the very idea of it.

White-throated sparrows (Zonotricha albicolis) are so common in our area that they can rightly be described as fixtures at winter feeders. This year, however, for the first time in the 25 years that I have been birding, I have not seen even one. So I am wondering if anyone else out there has noticed this bird so conspicuous in its absence.

When I think of white-throated sparrows, one of two images comes to mind. The first is of a quiet morning in the mountains when a light, soothing rain is falling. It’s cool out, there’s a fog in the woods, and the atmosphere is mysterious and gloomy. I am in a young patch of forest — one filled with striped maples, yellow birches, and beech trees, but nearby there is always a patch of hemlock and the air is full of the perfume of wet earth, moss, and decaying leaves.

The only white-throated sparrow’s nest I have ever found was in just such a place. I was out for an early morning walk in the White Mountains and stumbled across a nest under a small hemlock tree. The hemlock was located in the middle of an abandoned logging road that had been mostly reclaimed by the forest. There were goldenrods, raspberries, and a fair bit of grass, but the majority of the road was full of relatively good-sized birch saplings.

The other scene that pops to mind when I think of white-throated sparrows could not be more different. I see the quiet desolation of a winter landscape. There is a thicket at the side of an open field and within the tangle of branches sits a small brown bird seeking shelter from the falling snow.

The bird will venture out to look for food, but it will never travel alone. White-throated sparrows always travel in groups, and when they descend upon the feeding stations that humans have established, they will tuck into birdseed with zeal. They even perform a stuttering little jitterbug dance in an effort to reveal any seeds that may have been covered by snow.

To really appreciate white-throated sparrows, you have to sit outside (perhaps by your birdfeeder) and listen to these birds talk to one another. They have delicate contact calls, best described as lisping “tseet” notes, which they continually send back and forth. The patterns of brown and black on their backs make them nearly invisible until they come out of hiding and start looking for food.

The most distinctive markings of the white-throated sparrow are also the basis for the bird’s scientific name. The word “Zonotrichia” is a combination of the Greek words “zone,” meaning “band,” and “trikhos,” which means “the hair.” This is a reference to the black-and-white stripes on the bird’s head.

The word “albicollis” is a combination of the Latin words “albus,” meaning “white,” and “collis,” which means “the neck.” Thus, a literal translation would be something like the “white-necked band-head.” Not too bad really.

If you have seen white-throated sparrows this winter, or if you are like me and have not, drop me an email and let me know. I’d love to collect some data to see if was just me, or if was all of us.

Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.

 
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