Falling in love can happen quickly, or it can take its time. The other night it happened to me quickly. Bernie and I were driving home in the advanced glow of twilight. The details of the trees were being lost to shadows as the darkness filled the last light. We were coming back from having pizza, beer and dancing fun at a local joint. Our mood was light. We are both in love with our lives in these beautiful mountains. Often we feel this strongly on Friday nights when we are just returning to our farm from an evening out. We see the sun setting over large swaths of forest. We see the blue mist blanketing these hills. We watch the twinkle of fireflies and see the ghost-like shadows of deer in the misty dark meadows.
Driving the twisty road back to our farm in the almost dark, we came upon two old dogs walking side by side up the edge of the road. One was a skinny, matted St Bernard, and the other was a slightly smaller shaggy dog. Their heads were held low, and they were matching each other’s slow ambling gate up the side of the road. I hoped they lived nearby and would soon be turning down a driveway. Bernie wondered if perhaps they’d been abandoned. The thought of them being abandoned on the roadside, resigned to walk on together with no other plan, made me instantly fall in love with them. I never even saw their faces. There is something so innocent, identifiable and powerful about the soul of dogs. They can capture my heart in only one 45mph passing.
Then there is the slower kind of falling in love, where you get to know an individual over time. You watch. You encounter. You get to know them better, and suddenly there is an awakening of how much you care about them. This kind of falling in love has just happened to me with a wild chipping sparrow. Yes, a chipping sparrow, one of those common small brown birds. Only this one is distinguishable. He is a rare bird. He is a leucistic chipping sparrow, which means that some of his feathers do not produce the melanin that gives them color and are therefore white. My chipping sparrow’s head is all white, like someone dunked it in a jar of white paint to make him look like a mini bald eagle. The chances of a bird having leucistic or albino traits are 1 in 30,000.
Lil Eagleman, as we call him, first showed up two Aprils ago. We had just finished lunch and were doing the dishes when we saw what looked like a little cotton ball bouncing about on the front lawn under the chestnut tree. We quickly realized that the cotton ball was attached to a brown and gray body and was actually the head of a little bird. We spent some time trying to identify him until we stumbled on a rare photo of a leucistic chipping sparrow on the internet, BINGO. We were thrilled by the gift of getting to see such a rare bird. It was a lucky day, and then he was gone.
This April, while having lunch on our porch, we were musing about how neat it would be if we got to see that white- headed chipping sparrow again. Perhaps he would grace us again with his presence on his way back to his summering spot. It was not impossible as birds are habitual creatures. Then on April 5th, I was doing the dishes, and there he was again on the lawn under the chestnut tree.
We were thrilled to see him again. To our delight, this year, he has stuck around. He has a mate, and I think they have reared chicks. Probably none with white heads as the leucistic gene is recessive. We have seen him almost daily for three months. Sometimes he may be gone for a few days, but so far, he has always shown back up.
He has become a special bird to us. We named him. We watch him. We know where he goes about on our farm and how he acts. We can distinguish him from all other birds, so his personality has come alive to us. We know that he is fairly unafraid of people. That he is a busy, energetic fellow. We think of him as action packed. Sometimes we will see him far down where our driveway enters the main road, and other times he will be along the road to the house. Sometimes we pass him while taking the horses out. We always greet him out loud. If Bernie and I are together and one of us sees him, we will exclaim, “Look, Lil Eagleman!" Then both of us will say, “Hello, Lil Eagleman." We pretend that he’s an action hero.
Once while I was away, Bernie decided to spend Friday night camped at our wall tent on top of the mountain, a good mile walk from our cabin. He was grilling a hamburger when who should show up but Lil Eagleman.
I saw online that there had been a sighting of a white-headed chipping sparrow in Mooresville, NC, this April. That’s about 59 miles from us. I wondered if this was likely Lil Eagleman or another 1 in 30,000 bird chance. Perhaps that’s where he went when we did not see him for a while. Also, I saw that a white-headed chipping sparrow had been sighted in Chicksaw and the Atlanta area of Georgia in the winter months of 2018 and 2019. Is this perhaps the area where my bird has spent his winters? Are these one and the same bird? Relatives? Or other unrelated rare gifts?
I don’t know how long Lil Eagleman will stay. I never know when I see him if it will be the last time. I do know that I will miss him when he’s gone and that I will be thrilled if he returns again. I also know that he has snuck into my heart. I’ve fallen hard for the little guy because I’ve come to know him as I do the horses and mules, each as an individual, each with a life of his own which I am privileged to know. It’s not Lil Eagleman’s rarity but his individuality that has slowly captured my heart.