The Binocular Advisor

The Sparrows' Secrets

On crisp October days, when they're passing southward through my yard, I hear fragments of the white-throated sparrows' Old Sam Peabody song.

White-throated SparrowFrom my upstairs window, I watch a bunch of dead leaves blow into the yard on a gust of wind. They settle, brown and rumpled, among the gathering autumn leaves beneath the bird feeders. Nothing much to attract attention.

And then the new arrivals transform into white-throated sparrows. They jump, kick the leaves behind them, and reach into the cleared space for seeds that other birds have spilled from the feeders.

Now and then one of them gives way when another rushes at it, allowing the more aggressive bird to feed in some particularly attractive spot. But the time of defending territories is long past. These sparrows are just passing through, migrating southward, and they seem comfortable with one another's proximity. Only a few will linger here where I live, in Iowa, at the northern boundary of the sparrow's winter range. Most will spend the winter in the southeast or along the Pacific coast.

Concealment and beauty

Sharp-shinned HawkEven with the white crown stripe on some of the birds' heads, the white-throats do look like old dry leaves, rustling in the wind. At least, that's how they look from above. A merlin or sharp-shinned hawk (photo at right) studying the ground for a meal might overlook them entirely. White-throated sparrows count on concealment, camouflage, invisibility.

But they also need beauty. It is not enough merely to survive. To win the game of natural selection, a bird must produce and raise offspring. Displaying fine feathers helps it to win mates. And if its appearance impresses or intimidates rivals, it has a better chance of maintaining sufficient territory to find food for its young. Being gorgeous can pay off in becoming an ancestor.

And so a white-throated sparrow has a beautiful face. Some have white stripes on their heads and others tan stripes, but each one has a snow white bib, with delicate black borders that emphasize its brightness. A spot of yellow shines with the intensity of sunflowers between eye and bill.

White-throated SparrowAlthough the yellow dot is only a small patch of color, you couldn't miss it if you were another white-throat, looking head-on from the same level. You'd see a dramatic pattern, the love face that the white-throated sparrow shows to its own kind while turning a drab cold shoulder to the hawk. Here the needs for concealment and display both find expression in one small bird.

Plaintive spring music

In early spring, white-throated sparrows are already singing by the time they pass through my Iowa yard. The silvery tendrils of their high, pure whistles reach in through my window at dawn. The white-throat's song traditionally is transcribed as Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody. That's a crude approximation of the cadence, with some notes sustained and some in triplets. But it doesn't even touch the quality, which is ethereal and musical, some notes steady, some plaintively quavering.

When I first hear it, in March or April, I have to jump out of bed and run outside to find and greet this bird. Although the white-throats may be passing through for a couple of months, inevitably the day will come when the last one leaves for northern forests to breed. I'm already missing them, just thinking about it.

Scraps of song in October

During their fall migration, after the nesting season, the sparrows sing only a little. On crisp October days, when they're passing southward through my yard, I hear fragments of Old Sam Peabody. Their high-pitched, whispery whistles are just scraps of song, but instantly recognizable as white-throated sparrow.

White-throated SparrowI cannot know what the sparrows mean by their songs. Perhaps the sparrows sing just enough to stay in touch, for the comfort of each one another's company, or for corroboration that they are traveling in the right direction.

But the sound has a distinct effect on me. It makes me think of distant woods from which the bird has traveled. Of the fragility of a small singer on its journey. Of all that is vulnerable, fleeting, and lovely. My throat almost aches with the sound, as if it has touched some wellspring of nostalgia, or as if my vocal chords have reached in sympathy for an impossibly high note.

If I lived in the forests of Canada or in the North Woods, where white-throated sparrows nest, if I could listen to them all summer long, would their song still affect me this way? I think it would. I think I could not help but hear that poignancy, that story of seasons and lives, of loss overwhelmed by beauty.

By what secret does an ounce of feather and bone produce such music?

-- Diane Cooledge Porter

Diane PorterThis story first appeared in the Backyard Bird Newsletter, October, 2006.
Copyright 2006 by Diane Porter
Photos copyright 2002-2007 Michael & Diane Porter



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