Wednesday, April 11, 2012

White-Crowned Sparrows, Not Robins, Herald Spring

A winter robin in our birch tree, December 2011.
The robin is widely acclaimed to be a harbinger of spring in the United States; a robin appearing in late winter inspires many people to share the news that they've spotted one and thus spring must be around the corner.

How the bird earned this reputation isn't clear. In many parts of the country (such as here in the Pacific Northwest), robins are year-round residents. In places where robins migrate farther south for the winter, robins moving south from Canada may take their place.

The robin/spring equation isn't even a holdover from English folklore, as far as I can tell. Long-ago settlers from England, wistfully recalling the flora and fauna of their country, dubbed the big, feisty American thrush a robin because it had a russet breast like the spunky little English robin back home (which was once classified with thrushes but is now grouped with flycatchers).

But English robins, like many American ones, typically stick around for the winter (and are known for singing in fall and winter).

White-crowned sparrow, Magnuson Park, July 2011.
To me, it's the sweet, clear call of the white-crowned sparrow that signifies spring's arrival. White-crowns hang around all winter in the Puget Sound region, but I usually don't hear this little bird's melody until a Saturday in April, when it rings from the thickets striping the farmland near the stable that's our second home.

The white-crowned sparrow has starred in many studies seeking to unravel the mysteries of birdsong. Much of what we know about how birds learn to sing and birdsong dialects is based on research involving this species. Yet its plaintive melody hasn't yet been rendered in handy mnemonic-device form, unlike the "Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody" of its cousin the white-throated sparrow or the "Quick, three beers!" of the olive-sided flycatcher.

Any existing efforts labor just to catch the rhythm of the song--it's translated variously online as "poor-wet-wetter-chee-zee" or "more, more, more cheezies, please pink!", making it sound like it's after Cheetos rather than singing a melody that, to me, is like a balmy, languid, summer afternoon distilled into notes on a flute.

Field guides, alas, aren't much help. David Allen Sibley's white-crowned sparrow is a "doodly-doo, I don't know the words" kind of singer that trills "feeee odi odi zeeee zaaaa zoooo." The Audubon field guide sternly declares that the bird's song "basically consists of a clear introductory whistle followed by 4-8 whistles or wheezy trills on different pitches." The Kaufman guide simply states that the song "varies, with local dialects" and usually includes "clear whistles and buzzy or trilled notes."

Author-ornithologists seem to have more leeway when they write outside the confines of a field guide (which of course must use words sparingly so that the physical book doesn't get so cumbersome it can't be carried into the field).

Photo by Mike Baird/Wiki Commons
Naturalist and conservationist John Burroughs, for example, who lived from 1837 to 1921, called the white-throat's melody a "sweet, quavering ribbon of song" that was the "most plaintive of all the sparrow songs." In expressing its sound, he notes that "it begins with the words fe-u, fe-u, fe-u, and runs off into trills and quavers like the song sparrow's, only much more touching."

Songs of the white-crowned sparrow do vary from place to place and subspecies to subspecies, and these distinctions were keenly observed by ornithologist William Leon Dawson (1873-1928). In his voluminous Birds of California, he describes one subspecies' song of "oh hee sween'tie chup ichin'" as having in it "the sprightliness of springing heather, the bright, compelling cheer of sunshine battling with glaciers for imprisoned waters, and a little of the wistfulness, withall, of whispering pines."

Another species trills "Hoo hooee, wheeoo hoo che wee che wee hee, chee oo chee chee wee che" (after which Dawson notes, "These imitations are very stupid, of course--about as expressive of Zonotrichian melody as a naked wire dummy is of a man." (The bird's genus is Zonotrichia.) A third subspecies, the one living in Seattle, he chides as a singer of a "prosy, iterative ditty" that ends with a trill of "a wooden quality which we may overlook in a friend, but should certainly ridicule in a stranger."

It was a northwestern bird's "prosy, iterative ditty" that led me to a white-crowned sparrow perched on the tippy-top of a conifer in a park on the Oregon coast in the early 1990s--it was a new bird for me (white-crowns are scarce back East where I grew up).

The next one I saw wasn't nearly as hard to spot: It had claimed the central courtyard of a local elementary school as its territory, and when I spent a few hours there as a volunteer cleaning and weeding, the sparrow hopped from tree to tree to supervise my work.

John James Audubon (1785-1851) had to work a lot harder to check out white-crowned sparrows (which he called "white-crowned finches"). "It is to the wild regions of Labrador that you must go, kind reader, if you wish to form a personal acquaintance with the White-crowned Sparrow," he wrote after an arduous trek through what sounds like a bog.

He then rhapsodizes about the sparrow's song:
"In such a place, when you are far away from all that is dear to you, how cheering is it to hear the mellow notes of a bird, that seems as if it had been sent expressly for the purpose of relieving your mind from the heavy melancholy that bears it down! The sounds are so sweet, so refreshing, so soothing, so hope inspiring, that as they come upon the soul in all their gentleness and joy, the tears begin to flow from your eyes, the burden on your mind becomes lighter, your heart expands, and you experience a pure delight....Thus it was with me, when, some time after I had been landed on the dreary coast of Labrador, I for the first time heard the song of the White-crowned Sparrow."
Of course, this didn't stop him from destroying a patch of habitat in his determined quest to procure a nest ("we returned with hatchets, cut down every tree to its roots, removed each from the spot, pulled up all the mosses between them, and completely cleared the place") and later shooting the "gentle and unsuspicious" nesting pair of birds.

Perhaps the white-crowns would agree that "oh, please, leave me be, be, be" might be a fair rendition of their song, but they're such friendly, cheerful little creatures that they'd be inclined to forgive Audubon his songbird slaughtering in the name of science. So I'll content myself with simply hearing "oh, spring's here at last, last, last."