White-throated Sparrow and the Winter Moth

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

Last May my husband and I were delighted to discover a large flock of White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicolli) rumpusing about our garden. A chorus of choristers chortling My Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada or alternatively Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody, their clear, elegant notes were heard for several days and they were easily spotted rustling about in the hedge, dining on safflower seeds scattered on the ground below the bird feeder, and feasting on Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata) caterpillars in the trees. I believe it to be a fairly rare occurrence to observe a flock migrating this far east through Cape Ann. My East Gloucester neighbor Jen, who has a lovely garden even closer to the easternmost edges of the peninsula, reported same. Her flock also stayed for several days enjoying the winter moth caterpillar banquet found in her yard. Rather than walk or run, White-throated Sparrows hop, and we delighted in our all too brief encounter with this beautiful and entertaining “Whistler of the North.”

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

White-throated Sparrow Eating Winter Moth Larvae

Kingdom: Animalia (Animal)

Phylum: Chordata (Vertebrates)

Class: Aves (Birds)

Order: Passeriformes (Perching birds)

Suborder: Passeri (Songbird)

Family: Emberizidae (Seed-eating birds with a distinctively shaped bill)

Genus: Zonotrichia

Species: Z. albicollis

White-throated Sparrows breed from Mackenzie, central Quebec, and Newfoundland south to North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They spend winters in much of the southeastern U.S. and in small numbers in southwestern states. Frequent visitors to back yard feeders, White-throated Sparrows build their nests toward the ground in shrubby thickets or semi-open mixed woods, wood lots, scrub lands, gardens, and backyards. Of note, the sparrow comes in two distinct color forms: white-crowned and tan-crowned. The two color morphs are unique among birds. Individuals almost always mate with a bird of the opposite morph. “Normally, a single brood is raised each season, with the female remaining with the fledged young even after they have left the nesting territory” (Mass Audubon Breeding Bird Atlas).  After the breeding season ends, the adults molt and attain their winter plumage.

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)White-throated Sparrow Tan-crowned Morph

Last year I wrote an article, “Looking to the Future,” which was about Alain Baraton, the charismatic head gardener of the Palace of Versailles. Mr. Baraton has made it his mission to transform the 2,000-acre traditional landscape into a model of sustainable gardening, and in prohibiting the use of pesticides at the Palace of Versailles, the songbirds have returned in prodigious numbers. I thought of Monsieur Baraton in relation to our visiting White-throated Sparrows. From sunrise to sunset the sparrows could be found in our garden devouring the one-inch green winter moth larvae that were devastating our fruit trees. In hopes of mitigating the damage done by Winter Moths, several times throughout the winter we spray our trees with dormant oil. However, our neighbor does not tend to her dying tree. When the caterpillars grow to about one inch, they descend from her long suffering cherry tree and begin to devour our pear trees. The dilemma is that I do not want to spray with anything stronger than dormant oil and the reasons are manifold. Nuthatches store nuts and seeds in the chinks of bark of our pear trees, myriad species of bees are on the wing and in close proximity, and countless Lepidoptera larvae would also most certainly be adversely affected. As the winter moth expands its territory, logical too would be the assumption that migrating species of birds would find fortification in a diet of winter moth larvae and perhaps their range and population will also increase.

Winter Moth (Operophtera brumata)Adult Winter Moth ~ Operophtera brumata

White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicolli)

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