A Most Unexpected Guest

Clay-colored Sparrow, home

Clay-colored Sparrow, home

For nearly 15 years, we’ve lived in a sleepy Massachusetts town nestled within the Pioneer Valley, about 90 minutes west of Boston and just shy of an hour north of Hartford. Not much goes on here: There’s no downtown to speak of, our arrival predates the local supermarket, and the only options for dinner out are pub fare, pizza, and Chinese. But there’s land, open space. There are fields and meadows, wetlands, rivers and streams, rocky crags, lakes, and stands of forest. There are pockets of wildness in farms, home gardens, and backyards.

And in all these areas, there are birds.

Every year we’ve been here, we’ve put out feeders and dutifully spread seed beneath them for those who prefer to feast on the ground. And every year, we delight in the birds who choose to spend time with us: the indomitable Chickadees, with their spunky, devil-may-care exuberance; Juncos, whose return brightens the cold winter; feisty and boldly-marked Red-bellied Woodpeckers; Chipping Sparrows radiating pure and irresistible joie de vivre; Goldfinches, whose remarkable transformation heralds spring’s inception; Nuthatches, Thrashers, Cardinals, Warblers, Redpolls, Mourning Doves, Hummingbirds—all bring vitality and life to our home. Some are regulars, others show up here and there, still others may stop by for a day or two to fortify themselves and take brief respite from their marathon journeys. All are wonderful to behold; almost daily, I find myself enthralled by these exquisite creatures simply going about their lives. No matter the bird, each one has its own gift to bestow, and we celebrate the familiar and the rare in equal measure. However, every once in awhile, something truly extraordinary shows up, and we play host to a singular and unexpected guest.

This winter saw the arrival of a distant wanderer. It dropped into our yard on a December afternoon with little fanfare, installed itself among the Tree Sparrows and Juncos, and tucked in to eat. I noticed it immediately; it was smaller than its cousins, very distinctly capped and streaked, and much paler—almost frosty. It was a sparrow, no doubt, but I experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance as I watched it. I knew what I was looking at, but I couldn’t accept what I was seeing: as if materializing from the ether, a Clay-colored Sparrow had appeared.

About the size of a Goldfinch, the Clay-colored Sparrow is a hearty little bird of midwestern climes, summering in northern prairies and migrating through the Great Plains to winter feeding grounds south of the border. During fall migration, a few strays regularly make it to both coasts, but these account for a scant few sightings at most—about two percent annually. It is, by all accounts, a rare bird, and not one to show up in a backyard in western Mass.

And yet, there it was. I called my wife and son in, and the three of us stood rapt, watching through the kitchen slider as the sparrow foraged for seed in the evening’s fading light. Before the light disappeared completely, I hurriedly snapped a few photos as proof—for us as much as anyone else—that the bird was, in fact, there, that we didn’t mistake it for something else. We watched until it grew too dark to see, then recounted the event excitedly to each other—in a combination of disbelief and shock. Witnessing such a rarity was thrilling, and we were honored that it chose to reveal itself to us, and that we had helped, however briefly, to sustain it. We posted the news on various birding sites, and included one or two of the photos—poor though they were—so people wouldn’t think we were completely delusional. I went to bed excited, satisfied, and deeply moved.

Clay-colored SparrowThe next morning, against our expectations, the bird was back—once more in the company of Juncos and Tree Sparrows. It fed throughout the day, and I watched it as often as I could, captivated: barely more than twelve hours after its sudden appearance, the rarest bird ever to grace our yard had returned. This was truly special. It stayed through the close of the day, then left to spend the night sheltered in a thicket somewhere. By morning it would no doubt be gone. Or so I thought.

But it was in the yard again the next day, and the next, and the next after that. Days stretched into weeks, and the sparrow stayed with us. I posted regular updates and people traveled, sometimes for hours, to see it. Some we knew well, others we’d met only once before. Regardless, we opened our home to all who wanted to spend time with this wonderful bird. It was a joy to share the experience, to connect with kindred spirits on such a deep, fundamental level.

I fell fast in love with the sparrow, and looked forward to its daily visit. It became a companion of sorts—wild yet familiar. Unlike the birds that appeared in larger numbers, this was the only one of its kind, a specific individual. Every time it returned, I knew it was the same bird—not a Clay-colored Sparrow, but the Clay-colored Sparrow. For a month, we started every morning together, sharing our breakfast—the bird with its seed, and me with whatever I was inspired to concoct. I learned its habits—when it was most active, when it would hide or show, what would cause it to flush, which birds it associated with. Through countless photos and observations, I created a clear picture of this sparrow at this moment in its life, and developed an intimately personal connection to it.

And then, about a week after the turning of the year, it vanished. It left as mysteriously as it had appeared—no fanfare, no warning, here one day, gone the next. But what, really, did I expect? It’s not as if the sparrow would knock on the window, thank us for the food, and take its leave. And though of course I’ll never know, I’m fairly certain that it didn’t feel any particular bond to me. For a time, our yard provided everything it required, and when conditions changed, it sought shelter and sustenance elsewhere. And that is as it should be. It is, after all, a wild creature, driven by primal forces from whose influence we’ve gone to great lengths to insulate ourselves. Perhaps that’s not to be lauded. Though we try to forget it, we are bound by the same rules, and need the same things to survive: food, water, shelter, a healthy environment, room to thrive and grow. And, occasionally, the kindness of strangers. For a time, we helped this little sparrow survive, as others have done for us. Could it have done without the food and shelter we provided? Probably. But we did, and it found us. And in some small way, we made its life a little easier.

In the end, perhaps that’s enough. I miss it, though. I’d grown accustomed to being with the sparrow, to greeting each morning with the eager foraging of this charming, spirited character. I enjoyed caring for it, and taking part, briefly, in its life. And even though I knew its departure was inevitable, it still came as a surprise. I still wasn’t ready.

In its leaving, the sparrow bestowed one final gift. One day, my son, too, will leave this house to set off on his own great adventure. It will happen sooner than I realize, and I won’t be ready to see him go. But he’ll be ready—and I’ll be proud of him and happy, secure in the knowledge that we did our best to prepare him for what’s out there, that we gave him the love, care, and confidence he’ll need to surmount the challenges in front of him and create a life of richness, happiness, and meaning. When that day comes, I will let him go, and though it will be tinged with sadness, I will celebrate his accomplishments and encourage him down the path to his future. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy every moment with him.

And that, too, is as it should be.

Clay-colored Sparrow