- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular nesting species, migrant, and rare winter visitor. The species was abundant during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The White-throated Sparrow is widely distributed from the eastern Canadian provinces and New England states to British Columbia but in a narrow band along the ecotone between coniferous and deciduous forests (Figure 1). Highest reported densities are in northeastern Minnesota, north-central Ontario, and Labrador.
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 by Partners in Flight.
Short-distance migrant, winters in the southeast, northeast, and lower midwestern United States as far west as Arizona as well as along the Pacific Coast.
Omnivorous, including insects, arthropods, seeds, buds, fruit, and a variety of plant parts; primarily gathered from the ground.
Cup nest on the ground or slightly elevated and well concealed in vegetation.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Roberts (1932) described the White-throated Sparrow as “a common summer resident in the evergreen forests from Isanti County northward.” Its westward distribution included eastern Kittson and central Marshall Counties, plus tamarack bogs in Isanti, Otter Tail, and Sherburne Counties. Despite difficulty in finding nests, confirmed nesting was documented in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Cass, Cook, Isanti, Itasca, Lake of the Woods, Marshall, and St. Louis Counties as well as Itasca Park and the Lake Mille Lacs area. Most of the nests Roberts confirmed for this species were substantial documentations, such as nests with eggs, young unable to fly, or young just ready to leave the nest. The exceptions were in Cook County, where he stated the “brood of young just able to fly,” and in Lake of the Woods County, where he reported only a nest.
Green and Janssen in 1975 emphasized the White-throated Sparrow’s primary breeding distribution in the northeastern and north-central regions of the state. They also suggested it had marginal presence in the southern and western fringes of these areas. They added confirmed nests beyond those reported by Roberts for Anoka, Beltrami, Hubbard, and Pine Counties. Inferred nesting was also included for Carlton County. Janssen’s (1987) findings reinforced the distribution described by both Roberts and Green and Janssen. He confirmed nesting in 11 counties since 1970 in Aitkin, Beltrami, Cass, Clearwater, Cook, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Koochiching, Lake, Mille Lacs, and St. Louis. Later Hertzel and Janssen (1998) included a total of 13 counties with confirmed nesting since 1970 by adding Marshall and Roseau Counties.
The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016) recorded 1,805 breeding season locations and substantiated breeding observation locations previously suggested by both Green and Janssen (1975) and Janssen (1987). Their observations reinforced that the major range of the species is in the northeastern and north-central parts of the state. However, they also included locations from northwestern, west-central, central, and east-central Minnesota, including the following counties: Becker, Chisago, Douglas, Mahnomen, Otter Tail, Polk, and Stearns.
The MNBBA again reinforced the White-throated Sparrow’s extensive breeding distribution throughout the northeastern and north-central regions (Figure 2). The MNBBA recorded a total of 4,207 records with a high proportion of blocks recorded in all counties from Aitkin County northwest to Beltrami and Lake of the Woods Counties, and all counties in the northeast to Cook County. Nesting was confirmed, probable or possible in 29.6% (1,413/4,765) of the blocks covered in the state (Figure 3, Table 1). The only new county with a confirmed nesting record included several blocks in Carlton County. Another nesting record was confirmed for Anoka County, but this one was from the southwestern portion. The previous record, reported by Green and Janssen (1975), was from the Cedar Creek Forest in the northern half of the county. Hence, this is the most southerly confirmed nesting record for Minnesota.
Probable nesting was also documented in Otter Tail County and Kittson County, and possible nesting in Becker, Benton, Mahnomen, Morrison, Polk, Stearns, and Wadena Counties. All of these counties are on the western fringes of the breeding range of the White-throated Sparrow in Minnesota. They include counties where the species had been observed during the breeding season, such as by the MBS and as reported by Janssen (1987), but nesting had not been confirmed.
The MNBBA probability map predicted highest breeding densities of the White-throated Sparrow from southeastern Roseau County to southern St. Louis County, generally the northeastern and northern forested regions (Figure 4). Populations with lower densities were predicted in west-central Minnesota to Becker and Otter Tail Counties.
The overall changes in the breeding distribution and abundance of this species since the mid- 1800s and early 1900s are difficult to assess. Falls and Kopachena (2010) in their North American summary on the breeding range of the species do not identify any major changes in its breeding range, except for slight extensions in British Columbia, New York, and Vermont. The collective evidence from Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan suggests that the species population has not changed much during the past 100-plus years (Brewer et al. 1991; Chartier et al. 2013; Cutright et al. 2006; Roberts 1932). Findings suggest, however, that there have been some range contractions from the more southerly regions as forests have been cleared and converted to agriculture or residential areas. For instance, Cadman et al. (2007) noted a decline in the Lake Simcoe–Rideau region of southern Ontario from its first atlas in 1981–1985 to its second atlas in 2002–2008 may have been caused by “loss of early successional habitat due to intensification of agricultural practices, maturation of early successional forests and edges, and urbanization.”
In Minnesota it is logical to assume that deforestation in the southern and western parts of the state may have resulted in a retraction of the species’ range northward. However, Roberts (1932) makes no mention of the species’ distribution including the southern or western parts of the state. White-throated Sparrow breeding habitat was not historically common in the prairies, grasslands, open wetlands, and deciduous forests found in southern and western Minnesota. Hence, this species may not have been a common species in these regions, or at best it was found marginally in forested habitats after forest fire or logging activities.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.