This past summer as I watched over the plovers on Lake Superior, I heard a bird calling every day, all day, everywhere. Its song was something like “DOOOO DEEEE, do-de do-de do-de do-de do” with long “O’s”.
Music without lyrics. Perhaps in the absence of voice is the beauty of the unkown, like in opera. Top 40 radio hits you over the head like a red-winged blackbird defending its nest, no subtlety.
I couldn’t find this bird. It woke me in the morning, made pancakes with me at dawn, exclaiming “DUMMYYY it’s burnt, it’s burnt, it’s burnt, it’s burnt.” The bird followed me as I walked along the dunes of Long Island; it put me to sleep at night and occasionally pierced the silence of those laughably early mornings and those sparkling Superior skies.
Of course, it wasn’t one bird’s call, though I imagined it as one bird, flitting through the forest following me around, lonely—a projection of myself. I tried to find the “DOOOO DEEE,” as I began calling it, without luck. It was unknown and mysterious. I called back, and the bird would return with its call, though I couldn’t be sure was returning my call.
So slow and melancholy, the call began, the first two syllables deeply felt, while the next verses were quick and playful in a folksy, nostalgic way.
There was no Google search to answer this question. Of all the billions of bits of information I could Google, this was not one.
A friend told me it was a white-throated sparrow. Sibley told me that the call goes “Old-Sam-Peabody-Peabody.” I laughed. I told myself that I now “knew” the bird. The mystery vanished. I felt I lost a companion.
But had the mystery vanished? I think not. For three months, I observed the inner workings of piping plover life, read all of the research on piping plover behavior, but I was far from knowing the plovers. Checking the white-throated sparrow off a list meant nothing. “The whistler of the North” does not sing to be greedily reduced to a checkmark, it sings for itself. To know a bird is to know the landscape where it lives, and to know a landscape is to know yourself. If anything, there were more mysteries and questions than before.
It’s important to remember during the hysteria of spring migrations and birdathons that these birds are more than checkmarks; they’re something to behold. The Canada Geese, Red-winged Blackbirds, and Killdeer may be dismissed as givens on any checklist, but they are here, living, thriving.
On Saturday Faville Grove will be hosting a number of talented birders, not including myself, for the Great Wisconsin Birdathon. According to ebird data, White-throated Sparrows passed through about a week ago, but maybe we’ll catch a straggler. If we do, my checklist will be ready, and I’m betting I’ll have more checks than Goose Pond.
Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Flickr Creative Commons.