Plumage says it all

Published: 02-13-2022 4:00 PM

Our most recent large weather event created different conditions depending on exactly where you happen to live. Some got rain, some got sleet and a few folks who lived in the highest elevations may even have had some snow. For me, the storm brought an unexpected 3-day weekend when school was canceled and I decided to spend three consecutive mornings watching the birds from my kitchen window.

I can’t say that I saw anyone particularly interesting during that time. The “regulars” were all out in decent numbers and they were certainly willing to take advantage of as much food as I was willing to put out for them. I also got the impression that there were no hawks around for the duration of the weekend. As a result, the birds appeared to be a little more relaxed and comfortable than they have been at other times. This was great because it gave me some really good views.

So as I sat there at the window looking at a whole lot of “normal,” I started to find myself paying attention to little details that I might otherwise have overlooked. In particular, I started noticing the differences in the plumage patterns of the different species in an attempt to see if I could discriminate between “full-blown adults” and “newbies.” This is something that is fairly easy to do with certain species and virtually impossible to do with others.

One species that I started paying particular attention to was the white-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis). Those of you who are fans of the etymology of words may get a kick out of this bird’s scientific name. The genus name “Zonotrichia” is a compound word formed by combining the Greek word, “zone,” which means “band” and the Greek word, “trikhos,” which means “the hair.” This is a reference to the black-and-white stripes on the bird’s head.

Then the species identifier “albicollis” is a blending of the Latin word “albus,” which means “white” and the Latin word “collis,” which means “necked.” This is a very clear reference to the bird’s white throat. So, the full translation would be something like, “the bird with the striped head and the white neck.” As scientific names go, that isn’t bad.

Anyway, for one reason or another I find myself inundated with white-throated sparrows this year. At one point I had a high number of 27 of the birds on my deck at the same time (which was just about as many as I could keep track of in order to count accurately) and these high numbers have given me a great opportunity to compare multiple individuals side by side. The differences between the full adults and the fresh recruits is easy to pick up on if you know what to look for.

The full adult white-throated sparrow is a beautiful bird. An exemplary individual will have the bold black-and-white stripes along the top of the head with bright yellow “lores” between the eyes and the nostrils. The thinnest black line borders the bright white throat patch and the entire breast is a smooth, dark gray. A careful look at the photo that I have provided will also show that this gray color extends all the way up to the bird’s eyes on the side of the face.

In contrast, birds that are experiencing their first winter among us are a little less “clean” in their appearance. The stripes on the head are there, but they aren’t quite as bold. The yellow lores are present, but they lack the “oomf” that is seen in the bold, bright yellow of the adult. The white throat is there, but the breast feathers are somewhat “dirty” in their appearance. Instead of the pure gray of the adult, the breast feathers of the first-winter birds are tinged with brown. There is also some scalloping in the feathers and streaks of darker brown are visible. And if you are lucky (as I was), you will be able to see a dark spot in the middle of the breast feathers. I have pointed this out with a red arrow in the photo that I provided.

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Older sparrows in their full adult plumage will sit next to younger birds in their first-winter plumage and they won’t squabble too much if the food is plentiful. Younger birds may demur when approached by their elders, but personality is also key. Sometimes you get a young bird that is particularly feisty and it will not back down from an adult. These individuals may end up growing into the alpha birds when they finally hit full adulthood.

So, on this Valentine’s Day morning I hope you can spend a moment or two with someone special before you have to head off to work. Perhaps a cup of coffee shared by your own kitchen window will give you a moment to gaze upon the regulars that come to your feeders. If there are white-throated sparrows in that group, then perhaps you might see something about them that hadn’t really noticed before and the world will have become just a little more interesting than it was yesterday.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 24 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at, or head over to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.