Several days ago, on the last morning of October, a thick quilt of gray-white clouds almost covered a chilled blue sky. The colors of fall, though not spectacular this year, had changed the mood and light from sunny green to orange, rust and wine. Yellow, brown and dark-red sweet gum leaves and brown pine needles littered the ground. Brown patches splotched the green of white oaks, and pecan trees were turning their usual crusty, withered and curled gray-green, showering leaves in the wind. The jagged yellow hearts of wild grape vines twisted through the edge of the woods, with a red-orange fringe of sumac. Water oaks formed a massed background of speckled orange and brown. The dogwoods drooped, dusty-red, still full of lots of berries, and a persimmon tree at one corner glowed deep saffron and also still held many fruits. The few hickory trees in our woods burned with perhaps the most intense color, a searing copper-brown.
The fading, mellow colors and the cloud-gray light of the morning formed the perfect backdrop for the whistled songs of White-throated Sparrows, drifting up from hidden spots in shrubs and thickets – a plaintive, bittersweet fall and winter music. In a large, weedy old field just outside our neighborhood, the songs of three, four, five White-throated Sparrows, recently arrived from their summer homes in Canada and other places in the far north, rose from the tangled cover. Their songs are often described as Oh Sweet Canada, an echo of the northern wilderness forests where they nest. Most of the songs sounded a little shaky, tentative, maybe the songs of young, first-year sparrows, though apparently this is not known for sure.
The first White-throated Sparrow of the season showed up here in our neighborhood in mid October, in a privet thicket, and since then I’d heard the sibilant calls of a scattered few – a strong, expressive tsseeeeet – but on this last morning of October it seemed as if many more might have arrived overnight with the latest cold front – or maybe they just were suddenly more active. Several flew from spot to spot among the privet, chinaberries, dry blackberry vines and kudzu, pokeweed, dead-brown grass, and other weeds – along with mockingbirds, brown thrashers, cardinals and towhees.
One White-throated Sparrow perched out on the edge of a privet bush in full view, showing off its pure white throat, gray breast, deep reddish-brown streaked back and wings, black-and-white striped head, and touch of gold in front of the eye. Like many sparrows, often dismissed as anonymous little “brown-streaked birds,” White-throated Sparrows reward a closer look. They are plump, handsome, intricately patterned – fun to watch and easy to recognize once closely seen.
Other birds also have arrived for the season in the past few weeks – tiny Ruby-crowned and Golden-crowned Kinglets, the shy Hermit Thrush, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Dark-eyed Juncos, Cedar Waxwings and Yellow-rumped Warblers, several other species of sparrows, and many more. But the White-throated Sparrows seem to me among the most characteristic and defining parts of our winter landscape. Their return each fall is a ritual passage worth noting.
Fairly common and widespread, they often come to scratch for seeds beneath bird feeders, and they also grace the most neglected and overlooked spots, old fields and hedgerows in the country and vacant lots in town, as well as more manicured shrubs in urban parks and suburban neighborhoods – with bright chips, tseets, rustles and scratching in dry leaves, the sudden flurry of wings and a sharp, small call of alarm, and their dream-like, lyrical songs – reassuring signs that even the most abused parts of the natural landscape can still be full of life and often hold surprising beauty and much to be learned.