Tuesday, April 29, 2014

North to Can-a-da, Can-a-da, Can-a-da

White-throated Sparrows are on the move!  Some of them come down to balmy NE Ohio in the fall and overwinter here in our woodlands and sometimes even in our yards.  Many more overwinter farther south, then migrate north through Ohio in April each year.  Birds are moving a little later this year as spring is fighting hard to really triumph, but the White-throateds are singing all over the lake shore counties now.

If you recognize their call notes, you’ll know where they are in the winter.  In April, though, you can’t miss them – or at least you can’t miss their songs.   They probably aren’t singing from high up in the trees.  They are ground feeders who can often be seen hopping backward as they pull leaves off the earth to search for food underneath.   Here in our back yard, they sing from shrubs, small trees, or lower limbs of larger trees, as in the photo below.  Their clear, whistled songs are loud and focused, and their proximity adds to our ability to hear them well.   


Some birds don’t sing much as they migrate – in fact, some don’t sing at all - but White-throated Sparrows sing quite a bit.  The males are often very feisty, and if you whistle a reasonable approximation of their song, a male will probably sing right back at you.  This is not a sweet little dialogue – it’s a confrontation.  He may very well match your whistle exactly (if your imitation is worthy).  If you whistle back and forth, he’ll come closer and may switch to another version of his song.  Can you sing THAT one, too? (By the way, I don’t imitate birds who on their territories, as I don’t want to stress them.)

Another version of their song?  Isn’t it always just the “O, sweet Canada” or “Old Sam Peabody” rhythm sung to an ascending interval of a minor (or maybe even a major) third, like we heard earlier in this post?  

Well, no.  The first interval of the song can go up … or it can descend instead.

The size of the interval between the two pitches can vary. This one ascends, but it’s a little larger (a perfect 4th for you musicians).  I recorded it in our back yard just recently.

A White-throated Sparrow in our back yard a few years ago gave an excellent demonstration of two versions of the song.  How fortunate for me that I was recording him at the time!  He may have come back the next couple of years, as I heard the same alternating song pattern on the same pitches.

Some birds sing higher than others, and sometimes there are more repeated notes at the end of the song.   What’s fairly consistent is two longer notes at the beginning followed by several repeated notes.

With inexperienced singers, however, there’s no telling what you’re going to hear.  They have to learn their songs, and some of them just aren’t quite there yet.  Here’s one young bird in our back yard a few springs ago who was making a valiant attempt to get it right, but was still in need of some vocal coaching.  


 And what about this one in our back yard?  He still makes me laugh even today!

Listen, too, for White-throated Sparrow call notes, especially when they are alarmed. 

I also learned another call just recently.  I heard it when I directed my whistled the White-throated song at an individual who was next to the driveway a few days ago.  The response I got was a very emphatic trill!


Enjoy them soon – they are on their way to Canada as soon as weather conditions allow them to continue north across Lake Erie.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you SO much for this post - for years and years I've been wondering about this bird and you've finally solved the mystery for me! We always hear them up here in central Canada in the spring and throughout the summer - it's a familiar and welcome sound after our brutal winters. Just wanted to thank you again for your wonderful site, I'll keep investigating our summer sounds!