White-Throated Sparrows and the Return of Old Sam Peabody

Just because I am an admitted “nature lover,” that does not mean I have an equal affection for everything in and about nature. Who does? I mean, does anyone really love mosquitoes? Cockroaches? Hurricanes?

Natural pests and disasters aside, there is one thing about nature in particular that is always hard to love or even appreciate–or even tolerate: COLD.

Being deficient in natural insulating layers, a lack that clothing can never quite make up for, I dread the coming of late autumn and then winter. I spend a good half of the year preparing for, enduring, and finding (sustainable) ways to avoid the cold in all its terrible forms: frost, snow, sleet, ice, drafts, chilly winds, numbing gales….

And yet even the cold weather is not entirely absent from the warm places in my heart, thanks only to one saving grace. Yes, even the depths of the wintry cold, when the sun seems to mock us shivering mammals in this sublunary world, can make me smile, wonder, and fall in love again. For when the weather outside turns frightful and the fire inside is so delightful, those of us in the eastern and southern parts of the United States can enjoy the return of “old Sam Peabody.” Open your ears on a cold day and you may hear his song:

Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.

Ah, yes, cold weather means the return of old Sam Peabody, i.e., the song of the humbly magnificent white-throated sparrow. After spending spring and summer up north, mostly Canada, the white-throated sparrow heads south (though not all the way down to the tropics like many other birds) to enjoy a milder winter clime than that in the boreal regions. (Smart bird!)

The white-throated sparrow is far from flashy, never one to spark love at first sight. With its telltale white throat, white and black striped head with yellow “lores” between the beak and eyes, gray breast, and auburn back and wings, it looks fairly drab even against the bleak backdrop of snow. But then, as if inspired by that drab chill, it will perk up and sing:

Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.

If you are like me, this song will stop you dead, inside or outside, much like the piping of a wood thrush will when you are wandering through the woods. Indeed, the possibility of hearing this song may draw you out into the cold. Nothing beats hearing the first chant of “Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody” on a morning so chilling that icicles form on the tip of your nose and in the corners of your eyes.

Indeed, that song may even make you start to like, love, look forward to the return of cold weather. For without the coming of the cold, old Sam Peabody will remain in absentia, lounging and lingering up north as if actually avoiding warm weather. (Silly bird!)

So, alas, the time is here again for me to bundle up like a polar bear, grit my teeth lest they chatter and maybe even shatter, and head out into the freezing, frightful weather. But as my feet (numb, of course, despite the insulated books and socks) crunch along the frozen grass or the snow, the white-throated sparrow is sure to sing out, pluck my heart strings, and get me feeling all warm inside:

Old Sam Peabody Peabody Peabody.

But the cold of winter, too, will pass, temperatures will begin to rise, and this hemisphere will begin to thaw. And then the white-throated sparrow will feel the instinctual call to head back north. So if you listen in the later days of winter, then you will hear old Sam Peabody’s tune change into the sparrow’s American swansong of pensive longing for its other home:

O sweet Canada Canada Canada.

Image credit: Stevielist at Wikimedia Commons.

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