The Songs of White-throated Sparrows

It’s been a quiet fall in our neighborhood this year, with fewer migrating birds than usual, and muted, mostly weary colors in the foliage. In some ways the quiet of the birds has been disturbing, but change will come. And I try to remind myself to be open to seeing what’s here – and not to miss it by looking for something that’s not.

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, have changed the mood and light from green to mellow orange, rust and wine. A blush of subdued rose-red is spreading over the already thin green leaves of our two red maples. Our three river birches arch tall and almost bare, with pale peeling bark and very sparse, small, dull-yellow leaves. Brown patches splotch the dense green of white oaks, and the red oaks have faded to burgundy. Pecans are turning their usual crusty, withered and curled gray-green, showering leaves in the wind.

Around some houses, more brightly colored maples, crape myrtles and Bradford pear trees light up the yards with coral and scarlet. And a persimmon tree at one corner glows deep saffron and still holds many fruits; the dogwoods droop, dusty-red and also still full of lots of red berries. Yellow, brown and dark-red sweet gum leaves litter the ground and roads like stars, scattered on a background of brown pine needles. The yellow leaves of wild grape vines twist through the edge of the woods, with a red-orange fringe of sumac. Tulip poplars still hold a mix of yellow and yellow-green leaves, and water oaks form a massed background of faded green, orange and brown. The few hickory trees in our woods burn with perhaps the most intense color, a searing golden brown.

The bittersweet beauty of the subtle, understated colors and the cloud-gray light of the morning formed the perfect backdrop for the songs of White-throated Sparrows. In the large old field just outside our neighborhood, the songs of three, four, five White-throated Sparrows drifted up from thick cover in the weeds, a sweet, whistled music associated here with fall and winter seasons. Other White-throated Sparrows flew from place to place. One perched out on the edge of a privet bush, showing off its clean white throat, gray breast, deep-brown streaked back and wings, black-and-white striped head, and touch of gold in front of the eye. Most of the songs sound 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 about two weeks ago, in a privet thicket, and since then I’ve heard the sibilant calls of a scattered few from hidden spots, but this morning it seemed as if many more might have arrived overnight with the latest cold front – or maybe they just were suddenly more active. Either way, welcome back!

One Red-tailed Hawk circled over the field where the sparrows sang, and another perched on a pole overlooking the highway. Several Northern Mockingbirds, Brown Thrashers, Northern Cardinals and Eastern Towhees called and moved around among the privet, chinaberries, dry blackberry vines, pokeweed, dead-brown grass, and other weeds.

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