Bird peasants

ON crisp autumn days, nature is strangely quiet. Gone are bubbly wren songs, fluty bluejay remarks, and gentle catbird melodies. Many summer soloists drifted South when leaves began to color. Others are here, but silent, joining nature in her long rest. Our daily walk to the post office would be a barren trip except for two bird peasant voices we ignored in past months. Today our blue spruce vibrates with 19 sparrows greeting the new day and one another with melodious chatter.

Proceeding down the block, we hear, up in a large maple, a soft ``chee-e-e-er!,'' though we know a real cardinal's call would split the air. On a subsequent morning, a lofty singer enunciates a subdued ``bob white!'' yet quail prefer lower perches. A similar voice among sparse red and yellow leaves sounds ``sweet day'' almost like the black-capped chickadee. The makers of these counterfeit songs are five short-tailed, long-beaked starlings. When we stop to watch them, they lapse into confidential whistles among themselves. Their imitations of our favorite birds seem to improve as winter progresses. Or perhaps we cherish even simulated songs in winter?

Few people know starlings were prized cage birds a century ago, both for their ability to mimic and for plumage that flashes metallic blue, green, and purple in sunlight. Now they huddle in crowds on south edges of warm chimneys.

At frosty dawnings, English sparrows hold enthusiastic conversations and spirited arguments in the elm outside our window. Or, waiting for a feeble sun to warm the world, they hunker down in the quiet street, fluff out downy underfeathers, feet lost to view, conserving body heat. A car approaches, and they rise and circle in unison. By incredible sense of proximity, they never collide in midair.

Half of sparrow charm is how they flock together to feed when snow covers the earth. Plucky brown bodies flutter busily beneath our hedge where they inspect the ground for wind-wafted weed seeds. Similarly they examine bare spots in the garden.

If scarce, sparrows would be cage pets in this nation. They dance as daintily and clown as cleverly as our parakeet. Although we have seen common sparrows all our lives, they are not natives. An entire flock of them was brought from Europe about 1850 and released with hopes they might become established. They exceeded expectations.

From paid ship passengers to bird peasant status is quite a comedown. But starlings and English sparrows are voices of royalty to us in winter.

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