Who’s Learning to Sing Now?

Last week I started hearing the first songs of the year from the White-throated sparrows in my garden. The best part about this is that White-throated sparrows, like some other birds, must relearn their songs every year. I had the pleasure of meeting Don Kroodsma, author of “The Singing Life of Birds” several years ago and we had a brief discussion about the White-throated sparrow I was hearing that Spring in my garden. He just didn’t sound right and I thought that perhaps he was a juvenile who was trying to learn his own song the first year. I was told that may have been the case, but more likely it was a mature bird who had just forgotten what his song sounded like. It seems that since some birds don’t sing much after the mating and breeding season, they forget the complete song over the silent winter months. The general notes are there – they are just not exactly right. Apparently there are other birds including Bellbirds and Red-winged blackbirds who need a refresher period to relearn their song every year, so our White-throated sparrow is in good company.

Every spring there is a period of several weeks when the White-throated sparrows arrive in our area and try to get the first songs of the spring out. You can tell the sound is coming from this species of sparrow as the cadence is there as is the tonal quality, but the song has just not gotten to where it’s performance grade. I love hearing the first White-throated sparrow try to get it right. There are a couple of recognizable notes… then the entire thing falls apart. This might go on for 5 minutes or so and then he is silent for awhile. I keep wondering if he is embarrassed. He is, after all practically the only sound in the garden with the exception of the Cardinal, but his whistling notes really stand out above the ambient noise. He then starts up again later, and the song slowly, over the course of time – sometimes weeks – takes on the full form of the “Oh Canada, Canada, Canada” as some people like to call it.  The crisp clear whistling notes are hard to misidentify, and I just know that this fellow will have it right very soon. In the meantime, I am happy to just listen to him work on the performance. It’s a delight to hear it unfold.

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