For the Birds Radio Program: White-throated Sparrow

Original Air Date: May 1, 2002

White-throated Sparrows, the chipmunks of the bird world, are beautiful and tuneful enough to inspire us to look for other sparrows.

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One of my favorite sights of spring migration is a gathering of sparrows under the trees in my backyard. I scatter sunflower and white millet seeds on the ground there, and somehow word spreads among the sparrows. A couple of weeks ago juncos and Fox Sparrows were the dominant species-dozens of them hopping and scratching on the lawn. Now White-throated Sparrows are the order of the day. White-throats are the chipmunks of the bird world. They’re the size and rich brown color of chipmunks, and their head and back stripes enhance the illusion. Whether they’re earnestly scratching the ground, scurrying from one spot to another, or hopping from one branch to another in my brush pile, chipmunks and White-throated Sparrows look alike, act alike, and eat many of the same foods. All in all, they share pretty much the same niche in the forest, scrounging for seeds and insects on the ground, and hiding out in low branches and dense shrubs.

I saw my very first White-throated Sparrows on April 12, 1975, in Natural Bridge, Virginia. I was a brand-new birdwatcher that spring, scared of making mistakes identifying tricky groups of birds, and at first glance, the dozen pages of sparrows in the field guide were VERY daunting. But then I saw my first white-throats. My very first sight was of a gorgeous male with bold white stripes on his head, a distinctive yellow mark between his beak and his eyes, and the white throat that gives the species its name. I saw some tan-striped ones, too-they weren’t as bold and striking, but had enough of the markings that they weren’t too hard to identify. Proud as I was of identifying my first sparrows by their plumage, when I heard my first White-throated Sparrow song, I was even more captivated. Such a long, pretty and distinctive phrase, and then I read that the mnemonic for the song was, “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody,” I was amazed at how easily I could hear that. Later that spring I saw and heard white-throats in my in-law’s yard in Chicago, and in the Morton Arboretum, and was shocked that I’d never heard something so distinctive yet apparently common before. Taking up birding made me realize that there were beautiful things all around me that I had never noticed before.

Seeing my first white-throats inspired me to look closely at the other sparrows in the field guide. Within weeks I’d identified my first song sparrows, chipping sparrows, and white¬≠ crowned sparrows, and by the end of the year had brought my sparrow list up to 10 species. Other sparrows had trickier songs to learn than the Peabody bird’s, but little by little I mastered them, and again was surprised to learn that I’d been overlooking many of their songs my entire life. These common birds live among us, bringing subtle beauty and lovely songs to our world, yet are easy to overlook if we’re not paying attention.

Sparrows are soulful, homey birds, the color of the earth they’re rooted to. And simply by virtue of their being here, they make this little planet a more soulful, homey place for us to live.