The O Canada Bird

As the 2010 Winter Olympics get underway in Vancouver, here in the southern U.S. a lovely echo of the O Canada anthem can sometimes be heard just by stepping outside. White-throated Sparrows – which leave their summer breeding grounds in the forests of Canada and other parts of the far North, and come here for the winter – whistle a clear, sweet song which can be heard as Oh sweet Ca-na-da.

One of our most common and widespread winter birds, White-throated Sparrows are classic sparrows – brown-streaked birds that feed mostly on the ground and dive quickly into the cover of bushes when disturbed. But on closer look, they are handsome and distinctively marked, with chestnut-brown and black-streaked back, black and white striped head and face, a touch of deep yellow between the eye and the bill, and a crisp white throat, neatly outlined against a gray breast. Their appearance, posture and rather deliberate, confident-looking way of moving give them a dignified look much of the time – though they’re also skittish and shy, like most sparrows, and they’re almost always found in or near areas of thick, low vegetation. Their sibilant tseet calls can be heard coming from the cover of weedy fields, vacant lots, thickets, and in and under shrubs in suburban yards.

Around our house they feed on the ground beneath the bird feeders or beneath the shrubs, scratching up the leaves and mulch to search for seeds and occasional insects or fruit. They often sit half hidden in the dense, dark foliage of the wax myrtles, only the white throat giving them away. Although they don’t sing often at this time of year, it’s not uncommon to hear a few tentative, broken bars of the Oh sweet Canada song, especially early in the morning or near the end of the day, at twilight.

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