Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada: The nostalgia-inducing song of the white-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow. — Cephas/Wikimedia Commons

The wonders of any month lie in the cycle of nature, in the continuum of life. I take special joy in October, thanks in large part to its specificities: beautifully colored leaves; crisp, cool air; lengthening shadows at early twilight. But I also embrace October’s place in the round of the year: the slowing of life after the rush of summer, the gathering bounty, preparing for winter’s rest. In recent years, I have paid greater attention to the sonic as well as visual landscape and its part in nature’s cycle. This autumn, I’m paying special attention to the white-throated sparrow.

I’m not really a “birder.” I enjoy the bright red splash of a male cardinal as much as the next person, and I enjoyed my time a couple of years ago figuring out that the odd bird with the long beak in my backyard was an American woodcock. But I’m not obsessed with spotting the endangered piping plover or least tern. Yet I am opening my ears more and more to the chorus of birdsong that surrounds me — and how it changes throughout the year.

Amidst Iowa’s sky songs, I take special joy in the white-throated sparrow’s calls. It’s most famous melody consists of two longer notes, the second being a whole musical step lower, followed by a quick rhythmic succession of cadences about a minor third below (often described mnemonically as “Oh, sweet Canada Canada Canada”). The sparrow’s shorter tune, though less distinctive, is also lovely: one longer note followed by three or more repeated rhythmic tones, about a major third higher.

Around here, the white-throated sparrow and its song are most associated with spring. As the air warms and flowers bloom, the joyful refrain is heard in our woods and neighborhoods with greater frequency. To me, it is the ground note of spring, the leitmotif of the first movement of the seasonal symphony telling us life has returned to the middle land. Hearing repeated calls between two white-throated sparrows while I walk to the bus stop in the morning or tromp the woods in search of morels is especially pleasing. I have been known to join the refrain, though I’m sure my inadequate whistles confuse the conversation.

The white-throated sparrow is migratory, spending its breeding months in the boreal north. The bird is common, though, and it wouldn’t be entirely unusual to hear one occasionally in Iowa during the summer. But for the most part, once the heat and humidity arrive on the prairie, the Zonotrichia albicollis has retreated northward, leaving our summer songs to robins and cardinals.

My family and I, as do many Midwesterners, repair to the North each summer, near the Boundary Waters of Minnesota. Our preferred time is late spring, as life emerges exuberantly (thankfully except for the bugs!). In the song of the North, nothing matches the nighttime chorus of spring peepers on Sundew Pond. This year, however, due to family circumstances, our retreat to the woods occurred in August, the latest such vacation we have ever taken.

A major phenomenon of the late-summer North Woods is its astonishing quiet. Feral stomachs are satiated, so there’s less animal wandering. Families of the wild are mostly grown, the young out on their own, so mating — which much of the sound of the forest is all about — is mostly off the agenda. Aside from the wondrous reedy croaks of ravens, the raucous screams of crows and the occasional buzz of a nuthatch, the northern bird chorus is thin at this time of year. But this year, in the heat of late summer, I was enthralled to hear the song of my beloved white-throated sparrow, of which I had been bereft for months back in Iowa.

Visiting the North Woods places me in a new landscape. The Canadian Shield — with the earth’s bedrock near the surface, its profusion of conifers and the highest concentration of predators in the U.S. (according to the North American Bear Center) — is nothing like the deep soil and open fields of Iowa. Yet everything is part of a greater continuum. The Minnesota North Woods actually comprise a transition zone between the northern boreal forest and southern hardwood forest, which has its own continuities with the prairies below. The basic lesson of ecology is that everything is interconnected. So my encounter with my old friend the white-throated sparrow in the North Woods was not just a joyful reunion in an unexpected time but a reminder that my melodious keystone bird was there because of the cycle of life, the continuum of time and land. August is near the end of the sparrow’s annual breeding period, and it would be returning south — to my home — before long.

Fall has arrived in Iowa. And while the white-throated sparrow does not sing its song as frequently and exuberantly as in the spring, the distinctive major and minor thirds have returned to our skies. Eastern Iowa lies on the northern edge of the white-throated sparrow’s southern migration destinations, so some do hang around through the winter. But for the most part, October gives me my last chance to hear its familiar song in this particular cycle of life on our spinning orb. But in its final cadences of the symphony of the year, embedded in the song is the knowledge that life continues to turn, that after the sleep of winter, the air will fill again with this melody that grounds me in home. And as I think back to my August reunion this year, I also realize that, as an inhabitant of this living continuum called Earth, I am never really far from this song sung perpetually, though sometimes beyond my hearing.

Where Thomas Dean is from, the birds sing a pretty song and there’s always music in the air. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 251.

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