Of all birds, the white-crowned sparrow sings the high peaks into their perpetual place of beauty, sings the alpine wildflowers to blossom, sings the alpenglow, and sings the dawn as I nestle deeper into my sleeping bag. Right now, dozens upon dozens of migrating sparrows carry all that I love of the high country into our backyard in the pines of Bend, Oregon, with every whistling, tumbling, trilling phrase.
I listen to their serenades that sound a little like “Oh how I love THEE!” or “Come SEE me…!” There’s something in the melody that tugs at my heartstrings. For the biologists who’ve studied their songs, we know that it is the male who sings and the female rarely, and that across the far north of our continent there are different subspecies singing variations, yet always recognizable at their core.
What is it about song? The radio plays Bonnie Raitt singing Angel from Montgomery and I’m right back in University of Oregon at the No Nukes Concert. Songs take us to straight to memories–and this sparrow? Every song sends me hiking and backpacking into high country, from the Eagle Cap Wilderness to Glacier National Park. I’m catapulted across time and seasons.
A few days ago, we noticed one or two white-crowned sparrows. Every day, more arrive. They’re on their way north and upwards where the air is thin and spring is still muffled in snows. There, they will court, mate, and nest in small shrubs or right on the tundra in their short summer .
I watch them scruff their little feet in the lava soils and needles below the manzanitas. and ceanothus. They stir the soil and pluck our offerings of mixed seeds. Their rapid bows showcase their handsome heads–that black, white, black, white, black pattern of their namesake. Sometimes they face each other as if in a dance, and rise briefly into the air with wings afluster, only to descend and calmly resume eating. For eat they must to continue their journey. I know this visit ins a temporary gift, and one I savor.
It always pays to look closely too, for the unexpected. There! Right in the midst is a lone golden-crowned sparrow. Listen, do I hear his plaintive whistle of a love song? He, too, is heading north and not just up to the alpine but to the tundra of Alaska and the Yukon. For now, he seems ensconced among the white-crowned sparrows as if he were one of the flock, a bit like the lone Emperor goose among the Canada geese I’d seen a few weeks ago in Bend.
Wes and I give them water and seed and natural cover. We hang streamers from our house windows to prevent collisions when they fly up at once when we open a door. We bless their difficult journey. We thank them for their beautiful song, and yes, we’ll be attending their outdoor concerts in the alpine wildflower gardens. (Here’s a previous blog where I mention their song in the Eagle Cap Wilderness).
You can listen to the white-crowned sparrow on the Cornell All About Birds website here--what is their song to you?