Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse was my first book choice for Alaska, and its eponymous bird was the reason for these parallel posts on bird sightings in my book choices. The Aleutian sparrow is a variety of Song Sparrow, which is described as a larger, darker variety according to the Audubon online bird guide.

aleutian sparrow bird image 2

I was able to find many pictures of Song Sparrows, but only a few that were specifically noted as being of the Aleutian variety.


In the book, the bird is mentioned only twice:

TREES / The elders from Nikolski tell of the time before the white men came, when a single tree grew in the Aleutians and the Aleutian sparrow sang as it flew around the ascending trunk. / The seasoned tree proudly wore its struggle for life, and it alone reached up through the fog into the heavens. / The Russians chopped the tree down and built their Aleutian homes from its wood, and all those who touched the wood of that tree and lived in those homes met an early and mysterious death. / Here in our Southeast camp there are a thousand trees, but where is the Aleutian sparrow?


SEA CHANGE / After three years of promises we are back / … / Where one moment the rain ices our hair and the next a rainbow arches over the volcano, / … / It all comes back so quickly, the particular quality of the air where the Bering Sea meets the Pacific. / The Aleutian sparrow repeats over and over its welcome of fluid notes.

In both passages, it seems that the sparrow might symbolize the spirit of the Aleuts themselves. In the first instance, the sparrow sings as it flies around the single tree growing on the islands, but is missing from the camp despite the many trees there – the spirit of the Aleuts was strong before the Russians came and chopped down that single tree. The spirit of their people is dampened in the camp, but welcomes them back to their islands when they finally return.

As I went back through the book, I was surprised to find a few more birds mentioned, though none of them played much of a role in the story. I did have to do a bit of research on them though, as they were mentioned simply as, “murre,” or “hummingbird,” or “chickadee.” That’s often the case in real life, as well – you see a bird and notice as many markings as you can before it flies, then search for it in your books. As you gain experience you learn to recognize families. But when you bird in a particular region for a while, you learn what birds are most common, and you are less likely to say, “There’s a Rufous Hummingbird over there,” and just say, “There’s a hummingbird,” expecting that anyone from the area will know that only the Rufous spends its summers in the Alaskan peninsula*. Unfortunately, “gulls” are mentioned several times, with no other description to help narrow it down among the many species that live in or migrate through the area.

Another challenge I came across is the time lapse. The range maps I have access to* are those that show the current (or fairly current) range of birds of North America, however, Aleutian Sparrow is set during World War II, from 1942 to 1945. In the intervening time we have lost a lot of habitat and bird populations have declined. (This will be even more of a challenge when I do To the Bright Edge of Forever, which is set in 1885!) The Black-billed Magpie’s range no longer includes the Alaskan peninsula, but its range still reaches sufficiently north to take in the eastern part of the Aleutian chain, so I feel fairly confident in this identification. Other birds may prove more challenging to identify.

There was also one grouse egg found, but the bird itself was not seen, so I have not added it. It was probably from a Sooty Grouse, whose year-round range includes all of the Alaskan peninsula, though it might also have been a Spruce Grouse, whose range includes parts of the peninsula but is more common further inland than on the coast. The eggs of both birds are described as buff, though the Spruce Grouse eggs are said to be more pink-buff. I’ve included the more likely Sooty Grouse in the mosaic below.

Likewise, the Pacific Wren is seen only through its tracks. This little bird often forages on the ground, leaving behind foot- and tail- prints: “The road leading out of camp is marked by nothing but the delicate tracings of a wren.” I’m including the Pacific Wren (sometimes listed as a western variety of the Winter Wren) in the mosaic, but not in the list.



Birds Seen In This Book:

Common Name Variety Info Date
Common Murre (Uria aalge) JAN 11/18
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) JAN 11/18
Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) JAN 11/18
Black-billed Magpie (Pica pica) JAN 11/18
Common Raven (Corvus corax) JAN 11/18
Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Parus rufescens) JAN 11/18
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) Aleutian var. JAN 11/18


*Incidentally, the Rufous Hummingbird spends its winters here in Los Angeles with me.
*Since I do most of my reading on my phone, I generally use the range maps included in my birding app – iBird Plus. 

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