BETWEEN 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?
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.
But 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
- The song sparrow is one of few such widespread backyard birds, and also one that helped shape field of ornithology.
- Sparrows kick, robins pick. Find out what that means.
- Like other songbirds, young male song sparrows learn to sing from adult males–and not just their fathers, but preferably two males singing at each other.
- Fewer than one fifth of song sparrow pairs are reunited after winter, to mate again.
- More about bird song, in my podcast with Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
how to get birdnote
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.)