White crowned sparrow. Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

 

At this time of year, we start to see another LBB (Little Brown Bird) starting to move south from the higher elevations. In the fall I find them picking through the grass under my feeders or pecking at the gravel in my driveway. This LBB is stocky compared to other sparrows and has a reddish brown back and wings. Most notable is its clearly visible white throat. It has a black crown with a white stripe down the middle. The male shows a yellow spot on its lores, a region in front of its eye on both sides of its face.

This is the White-crowned Sparrow. (Photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren.) Each year, in early spring, I hear this bird in my neighborhood in Massachusetts as it passes through on its way to its way to its breeding grounds in northwestern Maine and Canada. Its whistled song of, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” has the power to transport me to the high mountains of Western Maine. Anyone who has hiked in our area in the summer has heard it. My first time was years ago on Mount Madison in New Hampshire. It was instantly locked in my head. So much so that when I hear it today. I can close my eyes and remember – actually re-experience – hiking mountains like Old Spec or Goose Eye. Standing on the Bald Pates looking up the Appalachian Trail winding toward Katahdin. Watching sunset on Madison. As a flatlander, this little brown bird’s song whispers to me about the wilderness of the high mountains.

Scientists tell us that although some part of its song seems innate, a significant portion requires learning the right song from other White-crowned Sparrows. This learning occurs during a sensitive time when the youngsters are 30-100 days old. In the 90s, scientists in Western Canada noticed the song of some of these birds had evolved. This new song caught on and has spread east. Now, most sing a shortened version that’s more like, “Good Sam Body, Body, Body”. Read about it in an article in the New York Times titled Canada’s Sparrows Are Singing a New Song. So, this fall as these birds come down from the mountains and pass through your yard, listen to see what version you hear.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To learn more visit www.mahoosuc.org. To contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

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