Sparrow Sopranos

A white-throated sparrow standing in grass


Early bird….catches the earworm?!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Whether it’s tweedle-dee or chippity-chirp, birds all sing their own unique tunes. White-throated sparrows are best known for a distinct, rapid three-note finale in their musical serenade. BUT what happens when someone starts singing a… REMIX?!

Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia and his team investigated. More and more sparrows were overheard singing a NEW double-note finale instead. With the help of volunteers, researchers followed the spreading new hit. How? By – you guessed it – listening to the birds.

And? In TWO decades the new hit swept the country! Spreading west to east – from Northern Canada to South Carolina. In some areas, the sparrows stopped singing the old three-note ending altogether.

Otter suspects this is because sparrows from all over share wintering locations. This allows the birds to learn the new tune and impress the ladies back home. So listen closely next time your neighborhood tweety bird sings. It could be the next big hit!

Me? I dig the oldies! Do-re-miiiii!

Reference: Otter, K. A., Mckenna, A., LaZerte, S. E., & Ramsay, S. M. (2020). Continent-wide Shifts in Song Dialects of White-Throated Sparrows. Current Biology, 30(16), 3231-3235.e3.