By John Thaxton
When a musicologist friend of mine from Manhattan came to the Adirondacks for a long weekend, he suddenly stopped dead in his tracks and exclaimed, loudly enough for me to cringe when I heard him, “Beethoven’s Fifth!” I looked around in vain for a symphony orchestra that might have magically materialized on Hull’s Falls Road, in Keene, and then studied the face of my guest, which looked entirely baffled.
“Did you hear that bird sing?” he asked, loudly, aggressively.
“Of course,” I answered, “I’m a bird-watcher, and listener.”
“What the (expletive deleted) bird was that?” he asked.
“A song sparrow,” I noted, “you have them in Manhattan, very common.”
He looked me in the eyes with a very steady, very serious stare and said, matter-of-factly, “Do you realize the first notes of that bird’s song are the same three notes that Beethoven used to begin his Fifth Symphony?”
I admitted, sheepishly, that I hadn’t made that connection, but noted that I would never again hear a song sparrow sing without thinking of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and I never have.
Extremely common and widespread, song sparrows breed all across North America, and they vary significantly in coloration, with nine significant variations across North America. I remember stopping for a snack in Joshua Tree National Park and suddenly spotting this sparrow I couldn’t identify. It stayed still long enough for me to take its picture and make notes about its behavior, and as soon as I began wondering what sort of sparrow it could possibly be, it burst into song and sounded exactly like the song sparrows that breed in my yard. But it sure didn’t look like them.
Despite large variations in plumage across their range, song sparrows exhibit almost zero genetic variation—a song sparrow from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state could breed effectively and immediately with a song sparrow from Cape May, New Jersey. Song sparrows from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska are 30% larger than those in New York and weigh twice as much.
You can see song sparrows just about any place, and their singing gives them away immediately—they hold forth with gusto, sing often and flit about low in the bushes constantly.
Song sparrows have a bold, dark spot on their chest that makes them immediately identifiable, but once you learn their song you don’t even have to see them—they sing almost constantly, and I smile every time I hear their song. I remember birding in Central Park and watching a young couple stop dead in their tracks and spin their heads around to look at a song sparrow holding forth from a low branch twenty feet away from them, at eye level. They looked at us and waited for us to identify the bird for them. We told them song sparrows bred and sang just about everywhere. They had never heard one singing they said.
I told them they hadn’t been listening carefully, and made them promise to listen more carefully in the future. Every time I hear a song sparrow I think of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and I invariably start hearing The Song of Joy.