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Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Oh, Dear Me: Golden-Crowned Sparrow



Golden-Crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla), Burnaby Lake Regional Park (Piper Spit): photo by Elaine Wilson, 2006

for Stephen Ratcliffe

light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, golden-crowned sparrow's oh dear
in foreground, sound of wave in channel

-- Stephen Ratcliffe: Temporality, 10/19

File:Zonotrichia atricapilla 4.jpg

Golden-Crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla): photo by Linda Tanner, 2008

The beautiful sad song of the Golden-Crowned Sparrow. A doleful descending triad of clear, piercing notes, quavering in its descent, "three notes given in a descending scale with intervals of thirds: sol, mi, do," as described by the ornithologist Joseph Maillard.

Oh, dear me.

The Golden-Crowned Sparrows come back to a favoured patch of earth every year in autumn. And like the young woman in the great Michael Powell film about the beauty and wisdom of wildness, they know where they're going. To the same spot every time, thanks to an Inbuilt navigational genius, superior to any GPS, and with a far better purpose.

The natural affection of a living creature for a certain place. Being particular, or picky, about it. As in, Nowhere else will ever do.

Golden-Crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
: photo by Steve Jurvetson, 2007

The lovely frequency and regularity of song, its variable formality within a fluid freedom, never waiting upon its own return, always waiting upon its own return.

Oh, dear me. The touching philopatry.

The individual returns to the birthplace. Elder offspring share the parental burden.

It's like the line in the great Darwish poem:

I'm from there.

Kin selection has worked out for the Golden-Crowned Sparrow, rewarding a natural virtue (which is its own reward).

Still, it's but a wee twenty-gram speck of a bird, and that flyway between Alaska or British Columbia California is long. A complicated route, with staging areas, molting areas, stop-over spots where there is pause for watering and a little whistling, a few well-earned, weary oh, dear me's.

No gold here, the Golden-Crowned Sparrow sang to the old miner. It will never pan out.

Little Weary Willys, Alaskan miners called the Golden-Crowned Sparrows who hung about the fool's-gold trails, whistling their plaintive Oh, dear me's.

File:Zonotrichia atricapilla -Reifel Island, Vancouver-8.jpg

Golden-Crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
, Reifel Island, Vancouver: photo by tgeyfox, 2010


Ed Baker said...

ass you posit:

"The natural affection of a living creature for a certain place. Being particular, or picky, about it. As in, Nowhere else will ever do."

THAT is that "other country" that I discovered ... on a walk in 1969 with (...):


on the way back from Pefkos
it came to us

cities we could almost remember

it came with the rain
& our walking

w a wind that cracked our faces


in the morning of our walking
we discovered our other country

(not "great poetry" ... but, what is?)

TC said...

Thank you, Ed.

Philopatry=love of one's home place.

I guess for you and me, not being Golden-Crowned Sparrows and not having the homeward-navigation built-in, that means being lost a lot, doing a lot of looking around, or out, or in...

But ah, if only we could sing like this or this.

Julia said...

Wonderful texts and pictures!
(My cat was also very fond of the golden-crowned sparrows'song)



Ah my friend, thank you for this -- and there they are out there. . . .


grey whiteness of fog against invisible
top of ridge, golden-crowned calling oh
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

and makes its way toward the
into which, as things

seem possible, which feeling,
can be seen that this

grey-white of fog reflected in channel,
wingspan of gull flapping toward point

TC said...


If a Golden-Crowned Sparrow were to encounter your cat, can you guess what the former might say? (Oh, dear me!)


I understand we are have some wet weather this weekend. But this Golden-Crowned seems to share your love of the water. (But no Oh, dear me's in the bath...)

Julia said...

Exactly, Tom, never better said "Oh dear me!
(My cat and I enjoyed very much that video, she was a bit frustrated, though)

Sandra.if said...


Anonymous said...

Tom (and Stephen), it's hard to find words. So after a couple of basically sleepless nights I'm going to take this off to bed.

"To the same spot every time, thanks to an Inbuilt navigational genius, superior to any GPS, and with a far better purpose."

As anyone who has ever seen animal GPS in action knows, it's unmistakeable, unfakeable and real. Years ago, our two cats U and Santa, would signal that Tuxedo Park was exactly two miles away from every direction while confined in cat carriers in the car.

"I'm from there."

That's right. It's something I've said and deeply felt while saying it, but I lack the animals' acuity of perception. As a friend/gifted Pilates instructor once said to my wife, "Curtis has no idea where he is in space."

The Golden-Crowned Sparrow is one splendid bird. We've had birds in the house for about 8 years now. They're generally freely flying around the room Caroline uses as an office. Until I knew them, I never knew how great birds were.

TC said...


Thank you, always lovely to hear from you.


Happy that you enjoyed this. You and Steve provide our aviary. Julia's cat (and for that matter ours and probably yours as well) would go nuts if admitted to Caroline's office.

On the subject of philopatry, the great film to which I alluded in the Michael Powell reference was this one.

If you like it as much as I do, you can continue on and see the whole thing there, in nine parts.

It is the most eloquent cinematic tribute to the mysteries of landscape that I know of.

(As I grow more and more ancient I grow more and more convinced it's also the most wonderful movie ever made... indeed a few others have thought likewise about it... and Scorsese -- who is largely responsible for a late revival of interest in Powell's work-- rather famously once said that he had spent the night before editing Raging Bull in a screening room watching IKWIG for the nth time, for formal inspiration.)

Anonymous said...

The first part of the movie was wonderful. I was unaware of it, but will be going back for more later today. I love Wendy Hiller.

Please be assured that the cats aren't allowed in Caroline's office. It's a daily issue that doesn't escape even my own natural absent-mindedness.

Taking birds to the vet is is an unforgettable experience. Earlier this year, Caroline correctly diagnosed that our parakeets had a mite problem. Because of the proximity of the University of Pennsylvania's excellent veterinary school, we actually have an avian vet in the next town, who was able to treat the birds using a medication that is similar to the Frontline anti-tick product used for dogs. Even though the vet and his assistants all handled the birds quite capably, the exercise of driving parakeets to the doctor and watching them flap around the room until they've tired themselves out and are willing to be held and examined is bizarre enough that a single experience bestows a lifetime of memories.