A most distinguished appearance

There are days when I move so fast I can’t catch up. Yesterday was one of those.

Sandwiched between a bunch of errands and a lovely dinner with friends, I eked out the time to write about the white-throated sparrow, a stunningly lovely bird. More research was required than I usually find necessary and I will share it. Only, looking afterwards (oh, well) at my notes, I see it’s the white-CROWNED I wanted to write about. The white-throat is gone by now while May is almost the only month in which I can cherish those observations of the white-crown. “Throat” will have to wait until next winter. (And, trust me, about now we all can definitely wait.)

Like kids seated alphabetically in a classroom, every book I have lists the two birds side-by-side. This would make sense even without the similar names for both have gray unstreaked breasts, white wingbars and a striped head. They even both have white throats, though in the one so-named it is highlighted by a black streak and so much more distinct. The white-crowned lacks the yellow spot of its cousin but has more dominant stripes across the top of its head.

Being a Chautauqua County native, I cannot comprehend why any critter would want to winter here and then head on north to breed. The travels of the hummingbird make much more sense: to escape the hot southern summer to vacation with friends in this lovely spot. The white-crown has been wintering far to the south and will journey on almost to the arctic circle, spending no more than two weeks with us. Only once in 15 years have I seen one later than May 19 and only three times one at the very end of April, so their stays are brief indeed. Interestingly, Kaufman considers it a bird of the west and says it’s generally an “uncommon migrant” though I have seen them every year since I began keeping records.

My Natural History of Birds has little to say but that is certainly enthusiastic: “It is a red-letter day for the novice in ornithology when he first meets this bird of distinguished appearance. Its gray vesture, black and white crown and elegant form give it an aristocratic appearance as if it were above the common herd of sparrows and in a class by itself.”

Peterson considers it “one of handsomest sparrows” and I must say that head’s a striking addition to a pretty plain group of birds. All have short cone-shaped beaks for the insects and seed they prefer. While they’ll scratch through dead leaves looking for food, they will appear below feeders to feast on the scattered leftovers.

The Audubon Society’s Field Guide included this intriguing sentence: “the handsome White-crown is a favorite not only of bird-watchers but of laboratory scientists: much of what we know about the physiology of bird migration has been learned from laboratory experiments with this species.” Obviously, I couldn’t let that go.

Sparing you the details (found at PLOS Biology Migratory Sleeplessness), the investigators wanted to learn when migrating birds slept and, presuming they might not, why that lack of sleep didn’t adversely affect their behavior. (Limiting sleep in humans to six hours per night for 10 nights decreased their alertness to a level comparable to having gone 24 hours without any sleep.) The white-crowned was used because their migration has been studied for over 50 years.

Using EEGs and other tests (even checking REM!), the scientists concluded that their birds might show increased drowsiness but that they did not compensate for their migratory sleep loss by sleeping more during the day. They remained fully awake with complete ability to navigate, forage for food and to be alert for unknown predators. However, the possibility does remain that they can sleep while flying.

I know the research will be aimed at helping humans with sleep disorders but I feel quite bad for the little birds having instruments to record EEG and EMC (not to mention REM) surgically implanted as well as for the experimenters who had to walk by the cages at least every five minutes from 9 p.m. until six the following night to keep the birds awake.

I will treat these visitors with extra respect and promise to be very, very quiet.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for over 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. “Her Reason for Being” was published in 2008 with “Love in Three Acts” due this month. Information on all the Musings, the books and the author can be found at Susancrossett.com.