Song Sparrows

No, it’s not the most dramatic or exciting bird. It’s not endangered, it doesn’t have an exciting life history, and climate change may make it a more frequent visitor for those of us on the northern boundaries of its wintering range. But it is adorable and it does have a lovely song, which you can listen to at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site.

Pretty, no?

This one is trolling for dates down at the pond near Newtonbrook Creek in the East Don Parkland. He let me get pretty close before heading into the underbrush.

The song sparrow varies quite a bit in appearance and size across its considerable range, but remains brown and streaky with a whitish underside and often a brown mark in the centre of its chest. Its song, too, varies from place to place, and can be used to distinguish not only identity but also family (since the songs are learned, and adult song sparrows tend to nest where they learned their songs as chicks). Male song sparrows recognize the songs of their neighbours and sing differently to birds they know than birds they don’t. They like to eat weed seeds and insects, so be glad if you’ve got some around–they’re eating what you want to get rid of.

Male song sparrows vary their response to other male song sparrows depending on their intent: early in the season, when they are trying to establish and defend a territory, they will respond to another male with the identical song (“type match”), but later in the season when they’re feeling a bit more confident they will instead reply with a different song shared by the neighbouring sparrow (“repertoire matching”). That’s pretty sophisticated behaviour for a passerine. Not to mention a much more pleasing way of dealing with territoriality than the horn-honking and fist-shaking common to our species. Apparently the female song sparrows agree; they prefer male song sparrows with larger repertoires, and not for any shallow status-seeking reasons, oh no: male song sparrows with larger repertoires are able to communicate better with their neighbours!

And they say we can learn nothing from the animals.


My heartfelt apologies to any dedicated ornithologists in the audience for my blatant anthropomorphism. The temptation was too great.

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