Annotated checklist and data resource
text © Don Roberson
photos copyrighted by photographer(s) credited
all photos taken in Monterey County, California
White-throated Sparrow Zonotrichia albicollis
Four species of Zonotrichia sparrows winter or migrate through Monterey County. White-crowned breeds locally along the coast and winters throughout in large numbers. Golden-crowned Sparrow winters in large numbers, usually in shadier spots than White-crowns. Sometimes found among the Zonotrichia flocks are two rarer birds: Harris's Sparrow, a true vagrant in MTY, and White-throated Sparrow, a rare but regular visitor. This page highlights the latter species.
Every late autumn a few immature White-throated Sparrows appear at coastal vagrant spots and at backyard feeders. The biggest push seems to be in late November; some of these will remain to spend the winter. Dates of known wintering birds in MTY stretch from 25 Oct to 11 May, but most are present only about mid-November to mid-April. White-throated Sparrows tends to be a shade-loving bird so it seems that most are found with flocks of Golden-crowned Sparrows, although there are plenty of records of them with White-crowned Sparrow flocks or mixed flocks.

This immature White-throated Sparrow (left) was in a Pacific Grove backyard 21 Nov 2004 (photo © D. Roberson).

Although a slight majority of MTY record are of young birds, adult White-throated Sparrows are found annually, and some are birds returning for multiple winters. Adults have more striking head patterns than first-year birds, and crisper white throats, but the intensity of color in the supercilium ranges from very white ['white-striped' form] to buffy-tan ['tan-striped' form]. Males that linger into April or May are sometimes heard singing their beautiful "Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada" song [sometimes rendered as "Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody"].

This adult (right) was at Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Research Reserve on 25 Jan 2004 (photo © D. Roberson). It had been found on the Christmas Bird Count and was thought to be the same bird as on the prior year's CBC (when it was also an adult), making it at least 3 years old.

Standard field guides are usually just fine for identifying White-throated Sparrows. Both immatures (left) and adults have a distinctive yellow wash (or spot) to the supercilium that is in front of the eye. Another important point is to notice just how rusty the wings are, with a lot of reddish color to the greater coverts, tertials, and sometimes nape and back. This rusty color really contrasts with the bright white tips to the median and greater coverts that form the two white wingbars.
Where to find a White-throated Sparrow in MTY? Mostly watch your backyard feeder if it has flocks of any Zonotrichia, or visit the backyards of friends or other birders that already have one in winter residence, or search the large Zonotrichia flocks in wooded habitat. Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Research Reserve is often a good spot: four different White-throated Sparrows were found there on a single day in mid-winter (1 Jan 1994). Peak times are fall passage in mid-to-late November and, to a lesser extent, another spring movement in March-April. Riparian thickets at river mouths (e.g., Carmel R. mouth, Big Sur R. mouth) are also a good bet, with prime time being mid-October into early December.
How many White-throated Sparrows are there in MTY each year?

This is a difficult but interesting question. The Monterey Peninsula Christmas Bird Count averages about 5 birds a year (almost all at feeders) but the high counts have been 12 in 1994 and 14 in 1982. It is also annual on the Moss Landing Christmas Bird Count, with 1-4 in the MTY portion of the count circle. It is rare, however, to have more than one White-throated Sparrow in any single Zonotrichia flock; indeed, the high count from any one flock is just 3 from a large flock at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park on 23 Feb 1991 and 3 more in another big flock in Mission Trails Park, Carmel, 27 Jan 1990.

I do not think that Christmas Count numbers reveal very much about the true status of White-throated Sparrow. I have lived at the same house in Pacific Grove for 22 years (through fall 2004) and during that period I have had a flock of 12-20 Golden-crowned Sparrows at the backyard feeder each winter. Over this period we've recorded six White-throated Sparrows, but only once did it winter (stayed Nov-Apr) and was it recorded on the CBC. All the other records have been of migrants in Oct or Nov, or in spring from late Feb into April. [Incidentally, White-crowned Sparrow, a local breeder just 3 blocks away, has been recorded even less often in my pine-shaded yard.] During this same 22 years, Alan & Sheila Baldridge have had nine White-throated Sparrows in their yard, and only 3 of them have wintered and been recorded on a CBC. Combining our numbers together results in only 4 of 15 White-throated Sparrows in these two backyard have been wintering birds. This means for every wintering bird there are about 3 times as many migrants passing through these two yards.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of similar yards on the Monterey Peninsula. My yard averages a White-throated Sparrow about once every 4 years; the Baldridges average one every 2.5 years; let's say the average is one every 3 years. If there are 200 similar yards on the Peninsula with bird feeders (and there are), and each had the probability of one every 3 years, this would mean that something like 65 White-throated Sparrows pass through the Peninsula each year, and the odds of being recorded on the CBC are one-in-four, the Monterey Peninsula might expect about 16 per year on the count. Since we have reached up to 14 in a year when feeder-counts were well-organized, perhaps these numbers are somewhere in the ballpark.

Assuming that there are at least four other areas with similar populations of Zonotrichia sparrows in shaded habitats [Moss Landing/Marina, Salinas/Prunedale, upper Salinas Valley, Big Sur coast] that have the same passage of sparrows, for a total of 5 such areas, that would mean that something like 325 White-throated Sparrows pass through Monterey County each year, with perhaps 80 birds wintering locally. These rough statistics suggest that only about 10% of MTY's White-throated Sparrows are discovered by birders each year, and I feel this is likely a fair guess. If anything, even more sparrows are passing through than this rough 'guesstimate' suggests.

Use the following links to other portions of the MTY checklist:
Part 1: Waterfowl through Grebes
Part 2: Albatrosses through Frigatebirds
Part 3: Herons through Cranes
Part 4: Plovers through Sandpipers
Part 5: Jaegers through Alcids
Part 6: Doves through Woodpeckers
Part 7: Flycatchers through Larks
Part 8: Swallows through Pipits
Part 9: Waxwings through Warblers
Part 10: Tanagers through Sparrows
Part 11: Grosbeaks through Finches
or just the plain Checklist (no annotations)

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Page created 21 Nov 2004