For the Birds Radio Program: White-throated Sparrow

Original Air Date: Nov. 20, 1995

Signs of winter are starting to appear, but Laura Erickson is hanging onto autumn as long as she can. 4:09

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I’m writing this script on November 14. My feeders have been busy all morning, with a couple of dozen juncoes, several flocks of chickadees, a Downy Woodpecker, one male White-breasted Nuthatch, and a couple of Blue Jays that have me so well trained that all they have to do is squawk and I come running with peanuts.

It’s always satisfying watching the activity, but this morning it was sad, too, because for the first time since August, not a single White-throated Sparrow came to my feeders. For the past few weeks, three white-throats have been hanging out here, proof that despite frigid temps and gray, leaden skies, winter isn’t here yet. White-throats are the avian version of the chipmunk, their striped little faces always on the lookout for danger from above even as they peer intently at the ground in search of seeds, fruits, and insects. Both species have high-pitched chip notes, but, as if to prove avian superiority once and for all, white¬≠ throats also have their lovely song, that long, whistled “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody,” a song that no chipmunk will ever master. Of course, this time of year not even white-throats have much to sing about, and the few songs I’ve heard in the past few weeks have been pretty pitiful efforts. But even in autumnal silence, they were at least still here. I could count on that. And then suddenly this morning, just like that, even though today wasn’t a bit colder or grayer than yesterday, they were gone.

Season follows season with an inevitability as reassuring as it is sad. The certainty that we face cold, dark days ahead is balanced by the equal certainty that the delicate beauty of spring and the lush warmth of summer will follow. And winter has its own matchless pleasures. Only in winter can we enjoy diamond sparkles of snow beneath crisp blue skies, the exhilaration of ice skating, the silliness of building snowmen and snow dinosaurs and snow pigs. When else can we greet rosy-cheeked children after school with warm cookies and hot cocoa, or breathe in the smell of wet mittens drying by the heat register or wood smoke clinging to our dogs’ fur? On days of deep snows, we wave to neighbors that we usually never see, neighbors whose lives are completely separate from our own except during these moments as we all gather on Peabody Street in the only common mission we ever share–to shovel snow off sidewalks so we can keep walking our separate ways.

No, winter is genuinely wonderful. But those long nights and bone­ chilling temperatures eventually get to everyone except chickadees, and some people, like White-throated Sparrows, prefer to escape the whole season altogether. We are sad at their passing, and feel a surge of gratitude when a chickadee zips in, knowing that here is one bird we can count on regardless of the season, a tiny grace note in the season of despair, a gift of mercy in even the fiercest winter storm.

As I ate my lunch at the dining room window, suddenly a shrike ripped through my yard, and even my chickadees disappeared for twenty minutes. The yard seems so quiet and dismal when everybody vanishes like that, but, as suddenly as they retreated, they came back, along with jays and juncoes and the nuthatch and downy. And then, what to my wondering eyes should appear but those three White-throated Sparrows. They hadn’t headed south at all–at least, not yet.

Winter is just about here, and I’m even sort of looking forward to it, but for at least a little longer, we’ve been reprieved from facing the inevitable.