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White-crowned Sparrows Sing The Sad Song of Winter

Updated on January 04, 2017
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An Overview

This article was originally published on the now defunct Bubblews site, on November 7th, 2013. Hub Pages administration has graciously given me permission to reprint it here. Anyhow, by that first week of November the song of the White-crowned Sparrows would have been heard in our local Southern California birdscape for a couple of weeks, issuing forth from the treetops, fennel and fences. In fall, these birds are an ubiquitous spectacle, decorating suburban gardens and parks, but by April they mysteriously disappear, leaving behind a silent void. What follows are my impressions about the feelings and images this ethereal bird song evokes, and how I hearken to this call every year as the sign that autumn is upon us.

This was actually my most "liked" article on Bubblews, so I thought I would put in back up on the Internet, in hope that someone, somewhere might derive some enjoyment and maybe inspiration from it. Perhaps these words can, in their own tiny way, serve as a springboard for a greater consciousness that people do indeed share this planet with beings other than Homo sapiens; a realization that might cause us to serve as stewards of the planet's wildlife, rather than plunderers.

White-crowned Sparrow Juvenile
White-crowned Sparrow Juvenile | Source

White-crowned Sparrows Sing The Sad Song of Winter

I always enjoy hearing the sad, wistful song of the White Crowned Sparrows in the tree tops during the fall and winter months in San Diego. Being a letter carrier means being outside all day, of course, and if a mailman wants to he can really get in touch with nature. I, for one, have learned to recognize the changes that come with the lengthening shadows and the crisp autumn air, and one of these changes is the plaintive, homesick call of the White-Crowns.

The White Crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) start singing here pretty much around the first of October. They can be heard pining away for their homes with that sadly sweet whistle that seems as if it is echoing off the distant mountain peaks from whence they flew. The Cornell Ornithology laboratory points out that some of these birds migrate 2,600 miles from Alaska to Southern California, sometimes flying 300 miles in a single night. I believe this, because you can hear the icy clink of the glaciers in their protracted wail. It is clear by their melancholy tone that they miss their homelands in the Northern Latitudes, and have only winged their way southward because the cold has made their lives in the northlands untenable.

Once in San Diego the White Crowns trade their lives in the Pine Tree ringed meadows of the North for our weedy, mustard clogged fields that are only sparsely shaded by the semi-tropical Eucalyptus. Southern California’s man made suburban thickets are poor substitutes for the tundra and high alpine meadows from whence they travel, but I for one am certainly glad they made the trip.

For me the song of the White Crowned Sparrow means that summer is over and autumn is now upon us. It is almost as if the warm Santa Ana winds blow them in, but they bring the cool air of the north with them in their baggage and winter soon follows along in their wake.

I encourage all of you to go outside and listen for the natural sounds that adorn your neighborhoods during the changing of the seasons. In our mechanized, automated society we no longer have to be in touch with nature to survive, and we often forget that there is a hidden, natural world that still exists parallel to our own, but as if it were located within a separate, unseen plane. I depend upon the White Crowned Sparrow to remind me that this secret world still exists, and when I hear them singing their sad, lonely Winter’s song, the forgotten knowledge this sound stirs up never fails to thrill me.

How Tuned In Are You?

Are you aware of the birds and other animals you share your neighborhood with?

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White-crowned Sparrows inspire art.  This is a stained glass depiction of a WC at St. Margaret's Church, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk.
White-crowned Sparrows inspire art. This is a stained glass depiction of a WC at St. Margaret's Church, Cley Next the Sea, Norfolk. | Source

Postscript - Facts and Personal Observations About White-crowned Sparrows

"Bubbles" were intended to be short and sweet, so to add some filler here I will include a few hopefully interesting and informative facts, as well as personal observations about the White-crowned Sparrow.

  • White-crowned Sparrows breed in open areas, interspersed by shrubs. Certain subspecies build their nests in tundra, high alpine meadows, and the edges of forests. This bird has been found as far north as the Arctic Circle. Their autumn and winter suburban habitats seem to mimic this open, grassy fields dotted by shrubs requirement.
  • The White-crowned Sparrow can stay awake for up to two weeks at a time during migration. I can rarely make it past 10 PM.
  • I once observed a White-crowned Sparrow laying dead on the ground after it flew into a laundry room window. Its plumage was in pristine condition, and it was a sad loss. The Bird Conservation Network estimates that 100 million birds per year are killed by collisions with windows. In human terms, this would be roughly a third of the US population. If humans went around slamming into windows at full speed, our country would be depopulated in three years. Birds have difficulty seeing glass. To help you can put in interior blinds, install frosted or etched windows with less reflective surface area, hang sheer curtains over large windows, and minimize night time illumination by turning off unnecessary lights.
  • Although the White-crown is strictly a North American bird, a vagrant was spotted in Cley next the Sea in Norfolk, England. This event was commemorated in stained glass, which you can see in the photo above.
  • In Autumn and Winter in Southern California, White-crowns are literally everywhere, using a wide variety of habitats to sustain their needs. As I am eating lunch in a suburban neighborhood, they bounce around beneath the tree I park under. They frequent the sage-scrub canyons that intersect our city's subdivisions. When I go walking in the coastal estuaries, I can see them foraging for seeds along the pathways. The fennel-filled vacant lot behind the Post Office where I work seems to have been created just for their nutritional needs.
  • According to whatbird.com, White-Crowns are skilled linguists. "Because males learn the songs they grew up with and do not travel far from where they were raised, song dialects frequently form. Males on the edge of two dialects may be bilingual and able to sing both dialects."
  • When I started birdwatching back in 1999, the White-crown was one of the first sparrows I identified. I spotted it, of course, while eating lunch, as a small flock foraged beneath a pine tree in a park. The White-crowns had been around me all that time, but prior to this I had not been paying attention. It is amazing what marvels human beings can observe when we just open our eyes and ears, listen and observe.
  • A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked traveling 300 miles in a single night.
  • White-crowned Sparrows are reported to be numerous and widespread, but their population declined 33 percent between 1969 and 2010.

Source

White-crowned Sparrow Song and More

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    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 13 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Way cool to the rule Jewell. I just love these little guys. They seem to sing right at you when you notice them. My winter hikes in our suburban canyons would not be the same without them.

      Thanks for a great article. And thanks for putting in that sound track so I could listen to them. I will be back just to listen.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
      Author

      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Eric for being in tune with creation. The little guys like this sometimes go overlooked, but they are little guys with a big song. Happy hiking!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 13 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Hey I have one question -- why the heck is it a "sad" song, it sounds downright jaunty to me.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      I guess it is all in the ear of the beholder Eric. I always found it rather melancholy, but not in a tragic way, only like they were missing their beautiful mountain tops.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 13 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Understood, unless you spent a winter on those tops ;-)

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      That's why the White-crowns are down here in the winter, soaking up the SoCal sunshine. Anybody who could fly and didn't have a mortgage would be here too.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 13 months ago

      I'm really glad you published the article on HP. Do white crowns come to Arkansas? I grew up with some kind of little sparrows that every year made nests in our attic vents, much to my dad's consternation. Sparrows didn't get much respect back then, and that may be a reason why. I listened to the song in the video, and it was very familiar to me. I remember that while my friend and I were playing outside one day, she was mimicking that sound and wondering which bird made it. She said it sounded like "Marie, chirp, chirp, chirp."

      I will be more observant because I've been hearing the Marie, chirp, chirp, chirp recently, and I've seen some sparrows. Do other types of sparrows sing this same song?

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Very good question MizBejabbers. White-crowns are not common east of the Mississippi, but they are possible. You may be hearing its close relatives, fellows members of the Zonotrichia genus, perhaps the White-throated Sparrow. I just listened to the song of the White-throated Sparrow and it is similar in tone, although the melody is different. Thank you for your kind visit.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 13 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Birds are a beautiful and improve the life in nature. Every morning I see birds around our garden and so love to hear their small chirps. A very interesting and well-informed hub. In the summer and winter birds are everywhere.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Devika, glad you love birds too. I'm sure your Croatian birds are fascinating. Every bird is fascinating. I appreciate you dropping in!

    • Eldon Arsenaux profile image

      Eldon Arsenaux 13 months ago from Cooley, Texas

      This was a fantastic read Mel. Short and sweet as the song of the White-Crowned Sparrow. I am glad you unfurled this yarn for us to enjoy. It is strange, that the 'natural world' sits outside our window, and yet, so often we look upon it as a manifestation of man's structure, as somehow separate from us. When will we learn that the songs of sparrows, or of all avians, inspired us to sing initially in return to our truest selves.

      -E.G.A.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 13 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very enjoyable article, Mel. The first part is written in a very different style from your hubs, but I love it. I can understand why it got so many likes. Thank you for sharing all the facts and for raising awareness about the white-crowned sparrow and nature.

    • AlexK2009 profile image

      AlexK2009 13 months ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

      Nice hub. I liked the title, which is very evocative and poetic. It made me more aware of the seasons and the cyclic nature of time on this planet.

    • Lipnancy profile image

      Nancy Yager 13 months ago from Hamburg, New York

      I really enjoyed your facts about the sparrows. I have always watched and been intensely fascinated with birds.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 13 months ago

      Hi Mel, this is beautiful, and especially the picture. I love it.

      We had a mocking bird that use to sit on the roof and mock my husband when he whistled while he was working outside.

      Love the beautiful birds .

      Blessings my friend

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 13 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Glad you refurbished this and shared it as a hub, Mel. I can understand why it was one of your most popular on Bubblews. I can't imagine life without our feathered friends in it. I have never seen the White-crowned sparrow but we used to have lots of other sparrows around in our front garden beneath and in the palm trees when I was growing up. Now I rarely ever see a sparrow unfortunately. They do have a charming song.

      We do have many other variety of birds where I live however. Probably the most pleasant songster is the Butcher Bird. I do enjoy the joyful "chip chip" of the Willy Wagtail however.

    • srsddn profile image

      srsddn 13 months ago from Dehra Dun, India

      It takes me to my childhood, Mel Carriere. Having seen the nature so close in rural area, I always enjoyed playing with sparrows which were not much different in looks than the white-crowned (may be white crown missing). There is a popular song in Punjabi language these days 'where are the spparows?'. It hits at the thining population of sparrows due to agricultural mis-adventues. I was shocked when no sparrow (or even other birds) came to pick up the grains which I spread in the balcony of my house when I shifted to so-called one of the smart cities of India.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the Hub!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Eldon what kind of magic could we unleash if we could cohabitate instead of dominate. Thanks so much for reading.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Be on the lookout come April and May Linda. A white-crown may come your way on the way to the tundra. Thanks for reading!

    • kimbesa2 profile image

      kimbesa 13 months ago from USA

      So glad to see this hub, Mel! I've been looking for these guys around here (the southern Great Lakes region), as I've seen them before.

      So far, no luck, though we have plenty of other winter visitors who will leave in the spring.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Very well said AlexK2009. We are all part of the cycles of the planet, but we have disconnected ourselves from it and it's time to get plugged in again. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Lipnancy I am glad you are tuned into birds, and I am glad you enjoyed this. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Thank you Shyron. I wish I could take credit for the picture. Sadly enough, the moxkingbirds seem to have abandoned our neighborhood, and have been silent elsewhere too. February is usually when they start jockeying for position and they use their song to set up territories. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Jodah I would love to travel yout way and see your Butcher bird and Willy Wagtail. I regret that when I was in Australia I didnt have my eyes in the skies, but I do remember the wonderful Gulahs. Thanks for reading!

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Srsddn, it is a sad and lonely day indeed when there is no sparrow song. Thanks for reading and your wonderful comment.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Kimbesa, publishing this hub here takes me back to the fun times of Bubblews before they revamped the site and took all the fun out. I'm not sure the White-crowns will grace your feeders in winter, but I guess April and May is a definite possibility. Thanks for reading!

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 13 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Yes Mel, you would enjoy our birdlife. My parents had a pet galah for all the time I was with them and he died at about 45 years of age. He could say many things e.g." Cocky wants a cup of tea", "scratch Cocky" and "Dance Cocky", "Who's that?" if someone was at the door. He would dance etc.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 13 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Yes Mel, you would enjoy our birdlife. My parents had a pet galah for all the time I was with them and he died at about 45 years of age. He could say many things e.g." Cocky wants a cup of tea", "scratch Cocky" and "Dance Cocky", "Who's that?" if someone was at the door. He would dance etc.

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 13 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      I don't recall if I read this on Bubblews or not. I'm glad to see the piece here and to be reminded of how special the fall season is. Your piece reminds me how quiet winter gets.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      That's remarkable Jodah. We young wild drunken Yanks were exploring the beautiful countryside of Western Australia, breaking all kinds of traffic laws in a right hand drive car when we felt the need for a nature call. With no other recourse, we stopped on the side of the road and as we conducted business looked up to see a huge flock of pink Galah birds on a wire looking down on us. Apparently they were as curious about wild drunken Yanks as we were about them. I will never forget that experience.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Not here Mills. In sunny SoCal the birds are still chattering. It's supposed to be 83 degrees on Wednesday. Where's the El Nino? Thanks for reading!

    • profile image

      Pat Mills 13 months ago from East Chicago, Indiana

      My part of the world might have benefitted from El Nino, as we missed the big snows that recently buried the east. We've seen little here this winter.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      The East has been socked by snow two years running. Maybe the Great Lakes is the new Bahamas.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 13 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      As you knew I would, I enjoyed this greatly. White-crowns are here both in the springing fall for a short time period. I have obtained a few decent photos.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 13 months ago from San Diego California

      Sorry it took me so long to get around to answering your comment, Deb. I would love to see your photos of the migratory White-crowns. They are probably the most abundant bird here during fall and winter. Thanks for reading.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 12 months ago from Oklahoma

      Great read.

    • Mel Carriere profile image
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      Mel Carriere 12 months ago from San Diego California

      Thanks for dropping in Larry. Really great to hear from you.

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