White-Throated Sparrows Singing A New Tune
About a half hour after sunrise, the song of a white-throated sparrow came from our big forsythia bush. I look forward to these sparrows every year, but this time I was paying special attention. I was pleased and thrilled to hear him singing the new song! Some background information is necessary here. Native to the northern forests throughout Canada, these attractively striped sparrows spend their winters in the eastern United States. They are among our most abundant winter birds in West Virginia, especially if you have a wooded area nearby.
Occasionally a white-throated sparrow, as if overtaken by homesickness, breaks into song. This is typically a series of whistled notes to the cadence, “Oh, sweet Canada, Canada, Canada.” Now, as if we needed another unique event in the unprecedented year of the pandemic, white-throated sparrows across America are singing much differently. The final whistled triplet has become a double, as in “Oh sweet Candy, Candy, Candy.” Online, search for “Catchy Sparrow Song Goes Viral” at www.sciencealert.com to hear the difference. This fall I’ve heard them singing both old and new songs.
This is a big deal to those who study birds. We have learned how important spring vocalizations are to a songbird’s survival. Females select mates based on the vigor of their song, which proclaims them as healthy males that can father strong young and defend their chosen nesting territory. Regional “dialects” occur, but an individual white-throated sparrow sings pretty much the same song as all his ancestors have sung.
But not anymore. In the late 1990s, Canadian ornithologists in the province of Alberta started reporting this new song among the white-throated sparrows nesting in certain areas. By the early 2000s, the alternative song was almost universal throughout western Canada. And this past year it has been heard from birds as far east as Quebec.
I love hearing the first white-throats sing when they arrive here, usually about the middle of October. Their songs are often fragmentary and weak. Youngsters only a couple months old are beginning to tune their voices. Studies of many birds in the wild and in captivity have shown how young males learn to sing by listening to the songs of older “mentor” males during the non-breeding season. By late March they’re all singing their wistful, homesick songs.
Field biologists and ornithologists are studying to determine the hows and whys of this new song. It is believed the new song started out years ago as a local aberration. During the winter, different populations of white-throats associate with each other on their wintering grounds. Young birds from other places heard the new song and learned it. When they returned to their home locations and set up new territories in the spring, female white-throats there apparently preferred and were attracted to males singing the new song. As they and their offspring returned to spend the winter with more sparrows from other areas, this learning process has continued. Thus, the popular new song has spread and, in this sense, “gone viral.”
Ornithologists recently report that individuals of another songbird species, the white-crowned sparrow, have also been heard singing different songs. Stay tuned!
Doug Pifer is an artist, naturalist, and writer. He has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Penn State and has been an editor and art educator. His illustrations have appeared in various books and magazines and he has been a contributor to The Observer for several years. He lives with his wife and assorted animals on 5.7 acres in a historic farmhouse near Shepherdstown.By Doug Pifer