Old Sam Peabody -- by Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
One the magical experiences of my life was hearing a White-throat's clear, clean whistle up near the summit of Mount Graylock in western Massachusetts, early, one cool morning at the end of June. There the bird was, perched atop a little spruce tree. I had said 'good-bye' to them a few months before and didn't dream I'd hear them again until the following winter. What a treat!
The subject of this week's column is another backyard bird of winter. A handsome, native American sparrow, descriptively named the White-throated Sparrow. I make the distinction about 'American sparrow' because the sparrows we see around town are actually not sparrows at all, nor are they native. The House Sparrow, some call it the 'English' Sparrow, is one of the most common birds found in any urban setting in the U.S., but alas, it is not a true sparrow. It is part of the Eurasian family known as weaver finches, and was released in these parts in the 19th century.
The White-throated Sparrow is one of the better-adapted New World species, and a regular denizen of many bird feeders. Our disruptive civilization has only been on this continent for a few hundred years, a very short time for any wild animal to change its behavior. In Europe, where man has been mucking things up for a few thousand years, many species have disappeared, and the ones that remain have found a way to fit in.
White-throats are a bit larger than the House Sparrow, with a length of almost seven inches. Like most sparrows, they show a general brown coloration. Indeed many birders pass this, and other roadside sparrows, off as 'LBJ's, for 'Little Brown Jobs'.
However closer observation rewards the observer with a panoply of colorful features. Right off the bat, these birds wear a white cravat at their throat that stands out dramatically against the gray feathers next to it. This species has two forms, or morphs, one having black and white stripes on the crown, and the other replacing the white with tan. I must confess, for my first 40 years of birding, I assumed that these were male and female, and if I'd just read my Peterson Field Guide more closely, I would have known better.
White-throats just happen to have two color variations that have nothing to do with range or sex. So, we see some birds here in the winter with tan stripes and some with white. As spring approaches, the white area between the eye and the beak turns brilliant lemon yellow. The overall affect of these contrasting colors is startling. But all the real color is concentrated from the neck up. The rest of the bird is really varying shades of brown.
So, who is 'Old Sam Peabody'? Well, this bird is known mainly for its song, which is a five-note whistled series with the rhythm - 'Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody'. Normally the first whistle is low with the remaining four notes higher with a clear, plaintive quality. Strangely enough, when they cross our northern border into Canada, there they sing 'Oh Sweet Canada'. How do they know? Bird species' popularity can be measured by the many colloquial names they carry, and White-throated Sparrows have 15 or 20. Other than Sam Peabody, a few more are: Tom Peabody; Canada song sparrow; poor Kennedy bird; sweet pinky; and the whistling sparrow.
White-throated Sparrows nest across Canada and down into the U.S. as far as Georgia in higher elevations. The winter range takes them down as far as Florida. They are common here from October through April. Listen for their metallic 'pink' call notes coming from brushy areas. If you feed the birds, you will note that these sparrows seem to prefer feeding at ground level. A low, platform feeder will also work for them. They prefer the smaller grain wild birdseed over the sunflower seeds, so this makes them like a cheap date who likes an inexpensive soft drink.
From now until early May, our backyards will echo with this call most of the day. Around the fifth of May, the warm wind will blow towards the North and most all of our White-throats will disappear, heading up into the boreal forests. Listen for the whistled 'Old Sam Peabody' call and try to study them close up to appreciate the way their plumage brightens through the season. Then, when the magic of spring has taken the blight from our landscape, be prepared for them to leave us until the autumn, unless you journey to Mount Graylock.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.