Adult upperparts are reddish brown with dark streaks, and whitish wing bars. The crown is dark brown or black, with a white central crown stripe, and there are two broad white or tan eyebrows and a narrow black eye line. Often has a noticeable yellow spot in front of the eye. The bill is dark. Underparts are white, with an unstreaked gray breast that outlines a prominent white throat patch. Young birds have some streaking on underparts.
The song, heard in late fall and early spring, sometimes in the winter, begins with two clear, slow whistles, followed by repeated three-syllable phrases on a higher pitch: "hew, hew, whe-he-he, whe-he-he, whe-he-he" or "sweet, sweet, Canada Canada Canada." Another "translation" gives rise to a nickname for this species: "Ol' Sam Peabody." The call is a "tseet" or a sharp, alarmed "pink."