Sunday, March 31, 2013

Zonotrichia, The Four Sparrows of The Apocalypse

Today BB&B offers you another guest post by the unimpeachable CASSOWARY, master of avian prose. Cass is a close ally of BB&B and is currently in the throes of phase two of back-to-back big years of nudibranch-twitching. some, the word may conjure up images of B-movie super villains, otherworldly castlescapes, or irruptive genital flora. But to birders in North America, it manifests in our minds as a different type of horror. Four massive sparrows, each endowed with a phantasmagorical voice that can, by turns, charm, disorient and haunt. Four winged horsemen, intoxicating in their song and beauty, all harbingers of the apocalypse awaiting each of us at the end of days.

I know I sound stark raving mad. And I am. For I have just seen my last of the Zonotrichia, Querula (I can’t bring myself to say the H word, so inadequate of a moniker is it for the incredible force of nature that is the Requiem Sparrow), Murder-throat, Dirge Sparrow, Famine. The Black Horse. It was in a graveyard on the edge of the desert, near a county line, borderlands, where my 1-year old daughter ate from the forbidden fruit (actually a sparkly, plastic red berry, probably horribly toxic, not unlike Eve’s Apple) from a garish bouquet upon a headstone. Most certainly there were snakes nearby. Where a coupled Long-eared Owl pair (Gatekeeper, Keymaster) were forever shitting and pelleting onto the graves of the dead...feeding the dead, it seemed, with the recently dead. It was here that the vision overtook me, the inherent identity of Zonotrichia revealed.

Zonotrichia, bird with bands, the alternating light and dark, destruction and rebirth. Both the riddle and key to understanding these birds true nature lies in the Greek and latin of their names. To see only the luminous third eye of the Golden-crowned Sparrow and ignore the bottomless black of its skull (“Atricapilla”) is to miscast the bird. To see only the plumal beauty of the White-throat and to ignore the implications of its song is a mistake most severe. But to comprehend the full bird in its regal and grotesque entirety is to help prepare you for the darkest of hours. The most dire of days.

White-crowned, Leucophrys, The White Horse, Conquest. A seemingly peaceful bird with a veritable halo around its head. Its song sometimes a pitch perfect rendition of the opening 6-notes of the maddeningly catchy chorus of J. Geil’s Band’s 1981 classic, “Angel in the Centerfold.” What could be more saintly and wholesome, never mind the moral questionability of centerfold portraits? I’ll let the Master Melville expound on the double nature, the Holy and the Horror, of the color white:

...Not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous- why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian's Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.

Golden-crowned, Atricapillia. Keepers of the Burning Eye. When they take wing and head to the northern, fertile battlegrounds, the gold is Dopplered, the red shifts to a blood crimson and their true form is there for all to see...not any golden horse, but a Bird of War, The Red Horse. After disappearing mysteriously for the summers on various military campaigns, these subtle and devoted followers of the Economy of Style would first reappear in the high country in September in NW Washington, foreheads blazing, like some sect of mystic monks, fresh back from foreign lands and crusades, heads on fire, smoldering with some esoteric knowledge. And throughout the winter they would keep vigil against the darkness, their golden crown oft the only light I would see in a week of rain and high pressure doom. Their mournful voices recounting the Victories of Summer and the Horrors of having to remember them…

White-throated, Albicollis. The Pale Horse, Death. When this bird sings, I hear not “Old Man Peabody” or “O, Canada”, each degradingly anthropomorphic and simplistic, but instead an incantation of Death and of the eternal void waiting for us beyond the horizon of our days. The song emanating from its brilliant white throat encourages one to go towards the light, towards the white, to accept our destiny as dust. The song of Albicollis is the same song of Whitman’s Mockingbird in “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” the same song the ocean sings to the young narrator in the same poem. The mockingbird, Whitman’s childhood friend and confidant,

Whisper'd me through the night, and very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp'd to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death

This is the message. And the Zonotrichia are the messengers. The 4 Winged Horsemen, “old crones” in their “sweet garments.” Exquisite reminders of the apocalypse awaiting each of us at the end of our life lists. A soundtrack to our Final Migration to the wintering grounds of Eternity…

The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet
garments, bending aside)…
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous'd child's heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death


The Cassowary has been featured several times on BB&B. You can find his two part interview on the newly-updated Human Birdwatcher Project page. All Zonotrichia (Harris's Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, Golden-crowned Sparrows, White-throated Sparrow) photos today by Seagull Steve and The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive. The existence of a Fifth Horseman/Zonotrichia in Central America is widely rumored.


  1. Oh my that is prose!
    Beautiful photos too.

    Y'all team up well to deliver dire news.

    1. Laurence, you are (apparently) a brave man to make the lone comment. The Birdosphere seems to be at a loss for words.