They Sing for Old Sam Peabody

I assume that autumn migration does not have the same power as spring migration for most birdwatchers. The anticipation of the growing warmth can’t be matched by the cold’s stretching fingers. The number of songbird species winds down to a hardy core. The warbler kaleidoscope outshines juncos, sparrows, and creepers. In autumn, Chimney Swifts flutter and twitter above buildings. Belted Kingfishers dive their last dives. Warblers skulk in the still dense green, faded plumage hidden. Spotted Sandpipers linger no longer by a shore’s corner.

The summer birds’ departure signals a comfort yet to come. I began birdwatching late in the fall. To return to this time is to return to my earliest days, to my first birds.

The title of “first love” belongs to the Dark-eyed Junco. But my first challenge belongs to the White-throated Sparrow. One afternoon, as I watched some continuing juncos forage in my backyard garden, a new flock of birds joined them.They’d stuck around until spring after that. I immediately ID’d them as sparrows. LBJ: Little Brown Job. What else but a sparrow? But it took me days to figure out which species.

Relatively speaking, White-throated Sparrows are easy to identify. The white throat – quiet a large patch beneath the bill – must be mentioned. They are the only North American sparrow with such a mark, after all. Lateral brown and white stripes run along their crowns. Their lores (the region between the eyes and the bill) are yellow. Their legs are pink. Mottled browns complexly color their backs and wings, while their breasts and bellies are plainly gray. Depending on the bird, their plumage can look shockingly crisp, so well-defined as if painted by a steady-handed, well-supplied artist; the whites very white, the yellows very yellow. These particular sparrows belong to the white-stripe variation. Others – around half of the population, as I’ve seen – can be tan-striped, in which they have tan stripes on their crown instead of white. They appear duller and overall more brown than their white-striped counterparts.

To a beginner birdwatcher, patching together the pieces of a bird’s plumage to ID the bird is hard. Or even noticing the fine details. One simply can’t see them. No matter how hard one looks! The obvious for an intermediate birder is obscure for the beginner. (Some shorebirds, in fact, are still difficult for me.)

I called them this, I called them that, I called them what the heck, and then another this. I can’t recall what tipped me to identify these sparrows as White-throats. It certainly helped to finally have a field guide of North American sparrows on hand. I felt victorious at finally being right. And then I spent some time wondering how mis-ID’d so many times.

I grew to adore the White-throated Sparrows. They looked like cute puffballs. When snow storms blew in, the flock would divide themselves in half: one half collecting falling nyjer seeds beneath the finch socks, the other half remaining on the backyard deck. I liked watching them hop around the deck, foraging for the seeds I sprinkled over the table and railings. There were so many of them and the juncos that they littered the deck and ground like ants.

They left footprints all over. Along with the other birds, they slowly pecked away the mounds of snow piled from multiple snowfalls. Several adventurous ones would try to get to the suet blocks I nailed to the tree, only to fall down, wings in a flurry, because they couldn’t grasp the side of the cage. Unlike the juncos and White-breasted Nuthatches, they made no aggressive move to one another.

One particular sparrow had a bag leg – black, stunted, wiry. It would limp, but had an easy time using its wings. It survived the winter. I last saw it and its companions in April, when I stopped throwing seeds outside. Perhaps it managed to return to the north with its flock.

The same April, I personally heard their singing for the first time in the middle of the afternoon. For much of early spring they like to practice before migrating back north and claiming their territory. I had previously listened to the song in recordings. Always the same phrasing, the same rhythm. The key varies. Ornithologists attribute a couple mnemonics to their song: Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody, or Oh Sweet Canada Canada Canada. During my second and third springs, I have heard some odd-sounding deviations. White-throated Sparrows – young ones especially – don’t always sing the full song. Sometimes they let out the very first couple of notes, stop, and then start and stop again, like a perfectionist musician. Sometimes they sing the first phrase and then quit for a while. Even the ones that manage the entire song can sound shaky and off-key (no offense to the Lab here!). This either makes one cringe or feel amused.

But back then, during that April, as I look back in retrospect, I realize my luck to have initially heard them at their full potential. The abrupt singing came from the yew trees next to my bedroom window. Whatever I was doing, I stopped. The lone voice rang through the silent air – so clear and level, the key perfected. A Little Brown Job, one eerie and melancholic. You don’t know your power.

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