The bird feeding blind in the Yakima Area Arboretum’s northeast corner is a fantastic place to quietly observe winter birds come and go to the seed put out by the Yakima Valley Audubon Society.
Sitting on a chair or stump behind the louvers, you can easily get intimate views of many birds, including sparrows — often called LBJs, or “little brown jobs,” by birders. Admittedly, most are dressed in shades of browns, but close study of these birds reveals intricate patterns and colors. Upwards of nine species of sparrows (not counting the house sparrow, actually a weaver finch) visit this feeding station from fall through spring, making it a dandy place to learn the distinctions of these usually furtive birds. One of the uncommon winter visitors is the white-throated sparrow.
How to spot one: White-throated sparrows resemble their far more abundant cousin, the white-crowned sparrow. The white-crown can sometimes have a ill-defined whitish throat, but this patch is never as sharply defined as in the white-throated sparrow. There are two color types or “morphs.” The head stripes are always black-and-white in the adult white-crown, but may be either brownish in the tan morph or white in the white morph.
Where and when to look: Near Yakima, dense, brushy tangles along riparian river bottoms are the white-throats’ favorite domain. It is occasionally noted in gardens with thickets in migration, but is most consistent at feeders along rivers. Feeding stations maintained by the Yakima Valley Audubon Society, such as the arboretum and Popoff Trail, are good sites from October through March. Departing northwards in spring, the white-throated sparrow breeds in shrubby thickets in the understory of Canada’s conifer forests, mostly east of the Rocky Mountains. In the United States, its range extends south from Canada in the Northeast states, mainly in cooler uplands.
Chow time: Seeds form the bulk of this sparrow’s diet in winter. In the nesting season, insects are important, especially for the growing young. Berries are relished in fall.
Home life: Birds of either morph almost always pair up with mates that are the same. To attract a mate, the male sings its lovely whistled song, a melancholy “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.” To those in Canada, where most of this species nest, this song is rendered “Oh my Canada Canada Canada.” The female lays four to five eggs and incubates these for about 11 to 15 days. After the young hatch, both parents bring food to the young. The young leave the nest after only nine or 10 days, but these are tended by the parents for another two weeks.
Beginning last winter and continuing this fall, the arboretum feeding blind area has been the site of a banding project by a Yakama Nation biologist who is investigating “site fidelity” of winter birds. Sparrows banded here last year have already been observed this fall, indicating at least some bird species that migrate far to the north, such as the white-throated sparrow, may well return to the same site in successive winters. This makes perfect sense to those of us who are “snow birds.” After all, if you find that perfect winter destination away from Yakima’s ice and gloom, why switch to a new getaway?