S8soseli: the White Throated Sparrow

Sipsis – pronounced seep-sees – #Abenaki for small bird

S8soseli – pronunced sohn-SOH-seh-lee  #Abenaki for White Throated Sparrow

The pure, simple song of the white-throated sparrow reminds us of the conversations to be joined outside of our own minds. This was going to be a post observing #NationalBirdDay, then realized it was a rather ludicrous construct. So, I will let sparrow speak for himself.

In English, the song is often described as “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” or, if you are a little further north, “Oh Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” I grew up having been taught and hearing the “Oh Sam Peabody” mnemonic. Many small birds are now known (in Western Abenaki) simply as “sipsis” (literally small bird), with no surviving differentiation between species. But a number of specific names have persisted into the present, mostly the more common and larger individuals such as crow, robin, blue jay, eagle, and turkey. I wondered if the #Abenaki had an onomatopoetic name for this little songster, a device often employed in the language, given that the song of the white throated sparrow is so memorable. To my joy, I was able to locate it! Father Rasles gives it as “sôhsohseli” – which I might rewrite as “s8soseli” pronounced sohn-SOH-seh-lee. It is a pretty good evocation of the song.

Wliwni s8soseli!




First robin seen this year! On January 28th… we are now into the beginning of the second Abenaki month, Pia8dagos, “makes branches fall in pieces moon.” Kwikweskas = whistlemaker = American robin.

We were out for a family walk in the skamonikik8n/cornfield ( just north of Wantastekw/West River near The Marina restaurant. There are a series of tamakwa nebisisal/beaver ponds at the back edge below the next terrace, where the river ancient course had been, many many generations ago… The steep bank faces south there and provides a warm, sheltered place on a bright winter  day. I had been hearing a bird call as we explored the frozen ponds, and couldn’t place the familiar sound. Just as it dawned on me (out of context), I saw a flash of orange motion and a robin flew over to a luxuriant spray of bittersweet berries on a tall tree. Another came to join a few minutes later. Kwai kwikweskasak!

Ruffed Grouse

ruffed grouse pakesso abenakiKnown to many New Englanders as the partridge, the ruffed grouse is a solitary dweller in our northern woodlands, the size of a small chicken. Expertly camouflaged with its banded and speckled feathers in brown, gray, and white, it is often unseen by a passerby until it explodes into noisy flight. In the spring of the year, the male woos his mate with a courtship display, fanning his wide banded tail, flaring his eponymous neck ruff, and lifting his head crest, like a dancing warrior. But the defining nature of this performance is his drumming: standing on a favored log or stump, he beats the air with his wings, in a progressively faster thump…..thump….thump…thump..thump thump thump. The deep throbbing beat carries far through the trees and undergrowth, sounding like someone repeatedly trying to turn over an engine – very puzzling until one knows its source. These birds can still easily be found (when seen!) in the deciduous and coniferous forests of Sokoki territory. The landscape management practices of the indigenous people, the Sokwakiak – which can be termed agroecology – with controlled burning and specific forest selection, would have encouraged the varied edge habitat in which the ruffed grouse thrives. To this end, it can sometimes be seen on the edge of a roadside in the morning, picking up gravel for its gizzard and catching the early rays of the sun, or in the late afternoon, taking a dust bath. In characteristic Aln8ba8dwaw8gan fashion, the Western Abenaki name for this warrior of the woods is pakesso, the drummer. The word for drum itself is pakholigan, an instrument/tool for hitting. From Kerry Hardy’s Notes on a Lost Flute

The ubiquitous Algonquian root pok-, which indicates some kind of hitting or beating, shows up in the following [ruffed grouse] names: pahpahkahas (Natick), paupock (Narragansett), pohpohkussu (Massachusett), and pakess8 (Loup, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy).