birdnote q&a: the song sparrow, often ready with a tune

Song Sparrow singing © Jamie ChavezBETWEEN SHOVELFULS OF SNOW, a song. Not an alarm call, but a real bird song, up the path in range to catch my ear, but not so close that I could see the songster. How can that be, in February in the Northeast; don’t many, or even most, songbirds lose the ability to sing in winter?

Yes, said my friend Ellen Blackstone of the BirdNote public-radio program, who has been the tour guide for our ongoing series of bird stories here on the blog. (Browse all past installments.)

The part of the bird’s brain that’s used for singing shrinks to lighten the bird’s body mass in the offseason, she explained (and here’s the link to hear more on that). In fall and winter, there is no mating ritual; no need to stake out a territory.

Many birds can still sound alarm calls in the offseason (like the consistently loudmouth blue jay), but not sing.

Song Sparrow © PutneypicsBut then Ellen had an idea: “Maybe it was a song sparrow—what did it sound like?” she asked. The song sparrow, she explained, was a possible exception to the offseason songless norm. Research as far back as 1947 cites its potential for “dawn singing on clear, cold mornings in January and February.”

Ah, if only I could remember. You might recall: I’m not too good at birding by ear. No positive ID here, because I haven’t actually seen a song sparrow lately (just white-throated sparrows, along with these other birds this winter).

But be assured that I’ll be listening, and watching, on these brighter second-half-of-winter days.

more song sparrow facts, from birdnote

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FIND ANSWERS to other bird questions in the BirdNote show archives, or on their FieldNotes blog. All of my past interviews with BirdNote can be found at this link.

Meantime, listen to BirdNote’s latest podcast on the player below, or by visiting their website, where you can subscribe to the podcast or RSS, free. More than 100 public radio stations playing BirdNote are listed here; if you like what you hear, why not ask your local station if they’ll carry it.

The BirdNote backstory: In 2002, the then-executive director of Seattle Audubon heard a short public-radio show called StarDate. “We could do that with birds,” she thought. In 2005 the idea became a two-minute daily public-radio show. Lucky for all of us!

(Photos: sparrow on branch by Putneypics; sparrow singing by JamieChavez. Used with permission.)

Categoriesbird sh-t
  1. Lacey says:

    Oh my gosh. I had no idea that their brains shrink to lighten body mass. That is stunning. Amazing. I just thought that birds didn’t feel like singing (neither do I in January and cold Februarys). Now that is a bad case of Seasonal Affective Disorder!

  2. Michelle says:

    I’m with Lacey. I never knew about birds’ brains shrinking in winter. That is fascinating.
    I have been worried about my backyard birds this winter. This is the first year I have seen house sparrows at the feeders and I’m worried they will bully away all of the other birds.

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    A song sparrow came to our back yard for the first time last summer. We heard the obviously brand new song repeatedly and went to the Cornell website to help ID the bird through their sound recordings. We thought we matched the song with the vesper sparrow, since part of our ID attempt was its precious NEST ON THE GROUND amongst my perennials. Instead, it was a song sparrow as identified by a prominent local bird watcher who favored us with a personal visit. He pointed out the dark chest blotch. This bird’s song is a magical sequence of lovely notes.
    And we heard it singing again last weekend in the Arborvitae hedge (as we shoveled snow off our patio for the umpteenth time). Just now I was researching “Bird Sounds” on Pandora radio, trying to find a spring chorus to brighten my housework. I found nature sounds, but not exactly what I wanted yet.
    Perhaps you have a clue about where to locate a lengthy recording of birds singing and/or crickets, spring peepers, frogs, cicadas, etc.

  4. Beverly New River Gorge, WV says:

    Enjoy the song and sound of birds in your back yard. Invest in a baby monitor. Mount the monitor in the yard or near a feeder. Bring the receiver inside your home and be entertained.

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