For the Birds Radio Program: White-crowned Sparrow

Original Air Date: April 6, 1989

An out-of-place White-crowned Sparrow showed up in Laura’s yard. (3:51)

Audio missing


(Recording of a White-crowned Sparrow)

Two Sundays ago, on March 19, a first-year White-crowned Sparrow turned up at my feeding station. It was a handsome bird, easy to spot among the abundant House Sparrows, and it easily established itself as top bird in the pecking order. Whenever cars frightened the birds away, the white-crown was the first to return—unlike most newcomers to my feeder, this bird quickly assessed the situation and knew just what the real dangers were. It spent some time at each of my three sunflower seed feeders throughout the day, and the rest of the time sitting in my spruces or sprucing up in the box elder.

Never before has a White-crowned Sparrow been recorded in Minnesota before March 29, and that record was in the southern part of the state. They normally don’t return to the northland until the middle of April. My bird was definitely not blown in on a south wind—the day it appeared we were in the midst of an Arctic cold front with winds out of the northwest. This bird probably spent the whole winter somewhere around here. And was definitely out of place. Survival of the fittest white-crowns depends on their ability to migrate, and that means my bird was very likely unfit.

The way it readily figured out my feeders, it was clearly spending time at feeders wherever it had been. I sort of expected it to stick around for a few days, since that’s what most out-of-place birds do when they find a steady food source. But when morning came, the bird had vanished.

Where did this one lost White-crowned Sparrow come from? Where was it heading? It’s always interesting, and yet troubling at the same time, to find a rare bird. It’s impossible to learn its history, much less its future prospects, and somehow it’s easy to start feeling responsible for it. There’s a magic to it, too, though. Now when the migration of white-crowns begins in April, I’ll look at each one in my yard wondering if it’s somehow my bird.

That’s what happens whenever I raise a baby bird, too. This year I’ll even be looking forward to the return of the grackles, because last summer I took care of an imprinted young one until it was ready to be released. Did it survive the migration? Did it figure out how to live with other grackles after being imprinted on a person? Did it survive the extensive shooting of blackbirds on its wintering grounds? If the bird turns up in my yard, I may well recognize it and know that it did survive. Then again, because I didn’t have a bander mark the bird, I may not recognize it if it does return, and it may well go somewhere else for the summer. So every time I see a grackle I’ll wonder.

I’ve raised and released robins, siskins, sparrows, other blackbirds, crows, and my favorite birds of all, blue jays. Seeing these otherwise common birds has a significance to me that it doesn’t have to those who never personally knew one. When I count thousands of migrants passing over Hawk Ridge I wonder about them, too–might one of my friends be among them? As a biologist it is essential that I recognize the importance of populations over individuals, but as a human being, I know that individual lives have meaning, too. Growing attached to individual birds inspired most of the prominent ornithologists throughout history to begin their study of biology, which in turn inspired their work to save whole populations. The human mind and brain are large enough to reconcile the importance of both individuals and populations, and the best scientists realize that it is only by saving one that we can begin to save the other.

(Recording of a White-crowned Sparrow)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”