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Ornithological Biography/Volume 1/White-throated Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow (Audubon).jpg
Song of the White-throated Sparrow


Fringilla pennsylvanica, Lath.

PLATE VIII. Male and Female.

This pretty little bird is a visitor of Louisiana and all the southern districts, where it remains only a very short time. Its arrival in Louisiana may be stated to take place in the beginning of November, and its departure in the first days of March. In all the Middle States it remains longer. How it comes and how it departs are to me quite unknown. I can only say, that, all of a sudden, the hedges of the fields bordering on creeks or swampy places, and overgrown with different species of vines, sunnach bushes, briars, and the taller kinds of grasses, appear covered with these birds. They form groups, sometimes containing from thirty to fifty individuals, and live together in harmony. They are constantly moving up and down among these recesses, with frequent jerkings of the tail, and uttering a note common to the tribe. From the hedges and thickets they issue one by one in quick succession, and ramble to the distance of eight or ten yards, hopping and scratching, in quest of small seeds, and preserving the utmost silence. When the least noise is heard, or alarm given, and frequently, as I thought, without any alarm at all, they all fly back to their covert, pushing directly into the very thickest part of it. A moment elapses, when they become reassured, and ascending to the highest branches and twigs, open a little concert, which, although of short duration, is extremely sweet. There is much plaintive softness in their note, which I wish, kind reader, I could describe to you; but this is impossible, although it is yet ringing in my ear, as if I were in those very fields where I have so often listened to it with delight. No sooner is their music over than they return to the field, and thus continue alternately sallying forth and retreating during the greater part of the day. At the approach of night, they utter a sharper and shriller note, consisting of a single twit, repeated in smart succession by the whole group, and continuing until the first hooting of some owl frightens them into silence. Yet, often during fine nights, I have heard the little creatures emit here and there a twit, as if to assure each other that "all's well."

During the warmer days, they remove partially to the woods, but never out of reach of their favourite briar thickets, ascend the tops of hollies, or such other trees as are covered with tangled vines, and pick either a berry or a winter grape. Their principal enemies in the daytime, are the little Sparrow Hawk, the Slate-coloured or Sharp-shinned Hawk, and above all, the Hen-harrier or Marsh Hawk. The latter passes over their little coteries with such light wings, and so unloocked for, that he seldom fails in securing one of them.

No sooner does spring return, when our woods are covered with white blossoms, in gay mimicry of the now melted snows, and the delighted eye is attracted by the beautiful flowers of the Dog-wood tree, than the White-throated Sparrow bids farewell to these parts, not to return till winter. Where it spends the summer I know not, but I should think not within the States.

It is a plump bird, fattening almost to excess, whilst in Louisiana, and affords delicious eating, for which purpose many are killed with blow-guns. These instruments—should you not have seen them—are prepared by the Indians, who cut the straightest canes, perforating them by forcing a hickery rod through the internal partitions which intersect this species of bamboo, and render them quite smooth within by passing the rod repeatedly through. The cane is then kept perfectly straight, and is well dried, after which it is ready for use. Splints of wood, or more frequently of cane, are then worked into tiny arrows, quite sharp at one end, and at the other, instead of being feathered, covered with squirrel hair or other soft substances, in the manner of a bottle-brush, so as to fill the tube and receive the impulse imparted by a smart puff of breath, which is sufficient to propel such an arrow with force enough to kill a small bird at the distance of eight or ten paces. With these blow-guns or pipes, several species of birds are killed in large quantities; and the Indians sometimes procure even squirrels by means of them.

The Dog-wood, of which I have represented a twig in early spring, is a small tree found nearly throughout the Union, but generally preferring such lands as with us are called of second quality, although it occasionally makes its appearance in the richest alluvial deposits. Its height seldom exceeds twenty feet, or its diameter ten inches. It is scarcely ever straight to any extent, but the wood, being extremely hard and compact, is useful for turning, when well dried and free of wind-shakes, to which it is rather liable. Its berries are eaten by various species of birds, and especially by our different kinds of Squirrels, all of which shew great partiality to them. Its flowers, although so interesting in early spring, are destitute of odour, and of short duration. The bark is used by the inhabitants in decoction as a remedy for intermittent fevers, and the berries are employed by the housewife for dyeing black.

Fringilla pennsylvanica, Lath. Ind. Ornith. vol. i. p. 445—Ch. Bonaparte, Synopsis of Birds of the United States, p. 108.

White-throated Sparrow, Fringilla albicollis, Wils. Americ. Ornith. vol. iii. p. 51, Pl. xxxi. fig. 5. Male.

White-throated Finch, Lath. Synops. vol. iii. p. 443.

Adult Male. Plate VIII. Fig. 1.

Bill short, robust, conical, acute; upper mandible broader than the lower, scarcely declinate at the tip, almost straight in its dorsal outline, as is the lower, both being rounded on the sides, and the lower with inflected, acute edges; the gap line nearly straight, a little deflected at the base, and not extending to beneath the eye. Nostrils basal, roundish, open, partially concealed by the feathers. Head rather large. Neck shortish. Body robust. Legs of moderate length, slender; tarsus longer than the middle toe, covered anteriorly with a few longish scutella; toes scutellate above, free, the lateral ones nearly equal; claws slender, arched, compressed, acute, that of the hind toe rather large.

Plumage compact above, soft and blended beneath. Wings short and curved, rounded, the third and fourth quills longest, the first much shorter, the secondaries long. Tail longish, forked, the lateral feathers curved outwards towards the tip.

Upper mandible dark brown, its edges and the lower mandible light blue. Iris hazel. Feet flesh-coloured, claws light brown. Upper part of the head black, with a narrow white stripe from the forehead to the upper part of the neck. A broader white stripe, anteriorly passing into bright orange, over each eye, margined by a narrow black stripe extending from the eye down the neck. Upper part of the back, and the lesser wing-coverts, bright bay, variegated with black; lower back and tail-coverts brownish-grey. Quills and large coverts blackish, margined with bay, the latter, as well as the next series, tipped with white, forming two conspicuous bands on the wing. Tail dusky brown. Throat white; sides and fore-part of the neck and breast bluish-grey; the rest of the under parts greyish-white.

Length 6½ inches, extent of wings 9; bill 5/12 along the ridge, 7/12 along the gap; tarsus 1¼, middle toe 1.

Adult Female. Plate VIII. Fig. 2.

In the female, the colours are similarly arranged, but much duller, the bright bay of the male being changed into reddish-brown, the black into dark brown, and the white into greyish-white. The white streak above the eye is narrower, shorter, and anteriorly less yellow, the greyish-blue of the breast paler, and the white spot on the throat less defined.

Length 6¼ inches, extent of wings 8½; bill ⅓ along the ridge, ½ along the gap.


Cornus florida, Willd. Sp. Plant. vol. i. p. 661. Michaux, Abr. Forest, de l'Amer. Sept. t. iii. p. 138, Pl. iii. Pursh, Flora Americ. p. 108.—Tetrandria Monogynia, Linn. Caprifolia, Juss.

A beautiful small tree, generally about twenty feet in height, with very hard wood; dark grey bark, cracked into squarish compartments; ovate-elliptical, acuminate leaves, which are light green above, whitish beneath; large, obcordate involucral leaves; and bright-red oval berries.