In the “ID Tips” column in the August 2018 issue of BirdWatching, Brian Small and I covered identification of Henslow’s Sparrow. As part of my text, I quoted a snippet of a silly poem that I wrote about this species many years ago. After the issue was published, I received messages from multiple readers, asking me to share the whole poem. So I’m providing it here, along with some more of the back story.
Way back when I was 18, on a trip to Florida’s Dry Tortugas, I met another teenaged birder named Joel Greenberg. We hit it off immediately and have been friends ever since. (He has since become a famed naturalist and author; his books include A Natural History of the Chicago Region and A Feathered River Across the Sky.) Shortly after the Florida trip, I hitch-hiked to Chicago and stayed with Joel’s family for a few days while we went birding around the area. At the beautiful Goose Lake Prairie, Joel showed me my first Henslow’s Sparrow: the 500th bird on my life list. Later that day we were musing about the fact that there were epic poems about birds like skylarks and eagles, but not about Henslow’s Sparrows. So I wrote one. It was published once, in the 1970s in Birding, the magazine for members of the American Birding Association.
Looking at the poem all these years later, I’m a little embarrassed — partly for the clunky meter of the verse, and partly for the implication that birding is all about list-keeping and competition. But anyway, here it is:
A breezy norther chilled the blood, as little sun was shining.
We slogged across the sticky mud of field and marsh combining,
While all around us, Henslow’s Sparrows laughed, and stayed in hiding,
Eluding birders with their craft, and freaky kids deriding.
“The day is dark,” Joel Greenberg said; “The search goes on forever!”
I wished that I had stayed in bed—no birder is that clever.
For plans are laid and lists are made and competition follows.
We spend our days with larks and jays and hawks and owls and swallows.
The birder rises with the dawn, and freezes to the marrow,
Searching ‘til all hope is gone, in longing for a sparrow.
And so we passed across the plains, among the dewy grasses,
Elusive sparrows on our brains, and steam on field glasses.
“The song at last!” we roared with glee, released from our dejection,
Which caused the lousy thing to flee the opposite direction.
And yet our heroes persevered: the bird was still in hearing,
So consequently it was neared and squeaked into appearing.
It perched in field-guide-like pose; all field marks were noted.
I studied it—I checked it off—and then for hours I gloated.
The sun came out—the wind died down—it seemed that all creation
Knew that a lifer had been found, and joined the celebration.
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