White-throated Sparrows and a Fire Ant Nest

On a sunny autumn morning, with colorful foliage still all around, I stopped to watch three White-throated Sparrows that came out of a hedge of shrubs to forage in some grass along the side of the road. One looked like a young, first-winter sparrow, with muted colors and somewhat blurry markings.* The other two were vividly-marked large, plump sparrows, with clean white throat outlined in black; black and white striped head and face; and cinnamon, brown and black-streaked back, gray breast, and touches of gold above the bill.

The young sparrow hopped into the middle of a fire ant mound. It stood there and pecked at the loose red dirt and seemed to be eating ants – or something. At the same time, it frequently jumped and pecked awkwardly at its tail, as if it might be getting stung. If it was getting stung, it must have seemed worth it, because it did not leave the mound. It kept pecking and eating – and jerking around to snap at its rump, in a dance that looked pretty comical, but might have been really uncomfortable, if not dangerous for the sparrow.

One of the mature sparrows hopped onto the fire ant mound and displaced the young one, as if thinking this looked like a good spot. It pecked a couple of times, maybe eating ants, then hopped quickly off the mound and back to the grass, where it stayed. Then the young one came back and continued to peck at the mound and hop around in its jerky dance for a few more minutes, before it finally left the mound and went to forage in the grass instead.

I stood for several minutes watching, in part because the behavior on the fire ant mound was interesting, and in part because this is the first good view I’ve had of White-throated Sparrows this season, and they all looked very handsome. I’ve been hearing their songs and calls for a few days now, but these are the first I’ve seen so well. It’s nice to have them back.

*What appeared to be a first-winter sparrow might have been a different form of White-throated Sparrow known as “tan-striped,” with a face pattern that’s buffy and brown instead of white and black. I’m not sure I can tell the difference, though I assumed this one was an immature.

Leave a Reply