Friday, May 04, 2007

Listening for a misnamed dirt bird

A few minutes ago I stepped outside to listen for a familiar bird song I thought I’d heard yesterday. Trying to hear anything above the incessant piping of Harris’s sparrows was difficult indeed for one with so impaired of hearing, and after straining for a while I finally gave up and withdrew into the half-warmth of the house. It’s so cold outside I’m surprised that birds are singing their lusty songs, but maybe somewhere in those unknowable lyrics lies a dirge or lament. One never knows.

I say it’s cold but the temperature is hovering slightly north of 50 degrees, which doesn’t sound too bad until one realizes it’s almost May. Each evening when I crawl into bed I’m thankful we haven’t jumped the gun and replaced the exquisite flannel sheets with the thin cotton ones we use in summer. I’m not complaining, mind you, because moderate temperatures keep energy usage low, which means more money available for important items like software and books.
Earlier, I thought I’d heard a faint burry stanza under the din raised by the meadowlarks, cardinals, chickadees, nuthatches, finches, bluebirds, robins, starlings, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, killdeer, mourning doves, collared doves, chipping and Harris’s sparrows, plus the insane drumming of a large woodpecker on a hollow tree. My first impression was of clay-colored sparrow, and the more I ponder it the more I think I’m right.

According to my field notes they should be here now. In fact, they’ve probably been here a week if not more, an observation that leaves me disgusted at myself for being so unobservant. In years past I appointed myself a one-man welcoming committee in order to compile meticulous reports of the birdlife in and around our two-acre plot on the edge of town. Crucial to this enterprise was recording first-of-season birds. (And last-of-season birds, too, though somehow they don’t have the cachet of the springtimers—greetings being more trenchant than farewells, and more pleasant, too.) And here it was a week past the usual arrival date and I’d not heard a single one. Or listened, for that matter.

Perhaps that’s an unfair statement. It’s hard to listen to what’s happening outdoors when outdoors is cold, wet and altogether miserable. The weather this year has been weird to say the least, and this unseasonable cool spell isn’t helping matters. Some of our residents more prone to moodiness are beginning to question if spring will ever arrive, or if it’ll skip us entirely and drop us straight into summer’s furnace. It’s not a pleasant idea other than the idea of warmth at last. I’m ready for a change.

Of the thirty-three species of sparrows in the United States, the clay-colored has always been one of my favorites. This is due not to any lavish coloration or behavior but simply because it was one of the first sparrow species I was able to identify with any precision. On the eastern plains of Colorado, a few short miles from the Kansas line, I was introduced to the species by a friend of mine, Duane Nelson. Thanks in large part to their sheer numbers and the fact that they were singing their fool heads off—and that Duane was a patient instructor—the lesson took root somewhere deep within my gray matter.

A clay-colored sparrow is not clay colored, I should note. (And what is the color of clay, anyway? Have our ornithological ancestors bequeathed a nonsensical moniker on this most lovely of bird species? From experience I know that clay in western Oklahoma is brick red, a rich terracotta from La Bajada Hill in New Mexico, an earthy brown from around the Big Blue River, and from along the Gulf Coast a pallid gray of part sand, part oyster shells. Maybe it’s the last they were thinking of.) No, the bird in spring sports a dark chestnut-streaked back and wings, gray nape, broad white supercilium and malar and unmarked gray underparts. In winter it’s buffy overall, though the nape is still gray.

Now, the clay-colored robin’s name makes sense if one gravitates toward dinghy olive-brown as the proper hue of clay. (I know, we’re talking about yet another shade, but I’m not responsible for their names!) Drab as mud, the robin can be found at times in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, but its normal range lies south of the border. Our first was seen along a vendor-lined road leading from Chichen Itza’s temples to the sheer-sided cenotes where victims were tossed to their watery deaths. They were common in San Jose, the capitol of Costa Rica, where, improbably, it’s the national bird. And this in a country known for the resplendent quetzal! What were they thinking?

The thought of Costa Rica brings a bit of sunshine to this clay-colored day. (Coastal clay, if it matters, deepening gradually to a darker shade like that on a pygmy nuthatch.) Every birder should be allowed once in life to visit a place where each bird species is a lifer. Unfortunately, travel is expensive and sometimes scary—and getting scarier, what with the world descending into chaos—so for now I’m stuck with our two-acre plot on the edge of a small Kansas town.

There are worse places to be. Petulant at the refusal of spring to spring, I crack the window behind my desk to better hear what’s going on in the real world. Fortunately it faces my good ear so the sounds come in loud and mostly clear. Above the earnest songs of the usual suspects is another, a series of raspy buzzes of unwavering pitch.

Retrieving my binoculars, I step into a cold gray light. A clay-colored sparrow sings gustily from atop the redbud, much to the vexation of a house wren who’s claimed the tree for himself. The wren scolds, fans his tail and threatens but clearly it’s an empty gesture. I’m impressed as I always am, and more impressed with the sparrow. It’s a lovely bird, surely too colorful to be named for something as unappealing as dirt, but the bird doesn’t care and, for today, neither do I.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Each spring I also welcome our feathered friends back to the prairie. In fact, I've wrapped that passion into a thesis topic at K-State (bird migration phenology). I'd like to get in touch with you about the records that you have kept. If you have a minute, please send me a message:

I apologize for using this comment function to make my request...I just didn't see an obvious way to send you an email.

I've really enjoyed reading several of your stories this morning. I look forward to your future posts.