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White-crowned Sparrows Sing The Sad Song of Winter
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 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?
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.