The White Throated Sparrow

In honor of Spring, when the white-throated sparrows stop in our yard on the way to the White Mountains and other points northward, I'm rerunning the following essay, first published on Hackwriters, Feb 1st 2006.

On a miserable hiking trip in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a friend and I were followed and encouraged by a particular birdsong, simple and consistent, loud and joyous. We may have forsaken that grueling June march if not for those bright, invisible voices. But the name of the feathered animal that had cheered us on our way remained dark. 

 The mystery nagged my imagination, appearing whenever I heard the Spring music of the forests. I dabbled with taped bird-songs from my local library and listened for the melody during my many wood-walks. Nothing for four years. On another trip to the valleys of the White Mountains in a cold May, I strained my ears for the song, but snow and rain may have kept the enigmatic creature away. I didn’t know.

And then, an opportunity to solve this little problem presented itself. My friends and I took another hike across the peaks of the Whites, from hut to hut along the high trails. As we passed through the krumholz layer of stubby pines, the song burst from the thickets. Enchanted and determined, I strove with my limited musical ability to memorize the song. At Madison Hut, I confronted the local naturalist, a college girl ten years younger, hoping that she knew something I didn’t. "What is this bird?" And I vainly tried to whistle the song. "Well," she shrugged, "It’s probably the white-throated sparrow. You hear it a lot up here. The song goes…old sa-am peabody peabody peabody."

"That’s it," I smiled with the joy of a four-year mystery solved.

"It’s actually the only birdsong I know," she confessed, and we laughed at our luck.

I learned as much as I could about this tiny little songster, a gray-breasted bird with a white throat, a black bill, and a yellow spot between its eye and bill. Its summer range is from Canada to the northeast United States and its winter range is from the southern U.S. to Mexico. I found that some of these magic birds wintered in my own home in Connecticut, but at that time they do not sing. I vowed to try to listen for them with more than my ears.

Only a week later, on the top of the more easily reached Mount Greylock in Massachusetts, as I relaxed on a rock perched high above the town of Adams, the little mountain birds took up their fabulous hymn, conversing back and forth in the pines. I realized that I would carry in my heart the twelve notes of the white-throated sparrow for the rest of my life. And more importantly, perhaps, I would carry the vital satisfaction of seeking and finding one of those inconsequential scraps of knowledge that nevertheless imbue our daily lives with spirit.