Jahnavi Shah

PhD Student, Planetary Science

Birds, birds, birds

Hi all,

It’s been a while! The past month has been a bit hectic and challenging so I thought I would write about a light-hearted topic and a fun hobby I’ve recently gotten into. Thanks to a good friend and colleague, Will, I’ve discovered my passion and love for birds and birding! Will kindly donated one of his old bird feeders which has been set up in my backyard for a couple months now. And I’m really enjoying the backyard traffic. Below are images of some of my sightings.

Through this, I’m learning more and more about birding each day. I recall in the very beginning I was relying on mainly how the physical appearance of the bird in order to identify. Over the months, I’ve learned to pay attention to their behaviour and sounds. Just a few weeks ago, I was able to identity a downy woodpecker (most likely) based on the physical appearance and the sound. I have yet to confirm my identification with a more solid sighting, but I was pretty proud of myself for listening closely and then looking up some sounds clips to match that. I enjoy the learning process that comes with this side interest without even having to pay much attention. One of my favourite parts is definitely observing the dynamics of the different birds at the feeder.

Given my new-developed interest, another friend shared an article about a study on white-throated sparrows with me a couple days ago and I found it to be very interesting. So here are the main points of the study:

Ken Otter and Scott Ramsay, biologists at the University of Northern British Columbia and Wilfrid Laurier University, respectively, noticed a strange dialect among the white-throated sparrows in Prince George (a city in Western Canada) in the early 2000s. The birds are common throughout the country and the male’s song is so distinct that people have put words to it: Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. Here’s a video of the typical male song:

An adult sings a thin whistle that sounds like Oh-sweet-Canada-Canada-Canada often at the tops of trees or shrubs (Cornell Lab of Ornithology).

But the song recorded in Prince George has a note cut off Canada, so it sounds more like Oh sweet Cana, Cana, Cana. Let’s take a listen and compare:

Initially, the scientists thought they discovered a new dialect unique to Prince George region. However, a pattern started to emerge over the next couple decades with the help of archival recordings, crowdsourcing bird songs, and fieldwork across the country. The new song has spread east across the country at a very rapid speed. The first Oh sweet Cana was recorded in Ontario’s Algonquin Park in 2005 and two more in 2007. By 2017, 44 of 92 males recorded had changed their song. In Alberta, over two surveys conducted in 2004 and 2014, Cana had been replaced with Canada. How did the new variant spread from west to east?

The eastward spread of the doublet-ending song variant relative to
the historic triplet-ending song variant between 2000 and 2019 in the white-throated sparrow. Size of circles indicates relative numbers of songs recorded from a location of each song type (Otter et al, 2020).

One of the suggestions, is that the birds from the West were meeting young sparrows from the East on the wintering grounds and passing on the new variant. Migration studies showed that birds from East and West spent the winter in overlapping areas in eastern Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Kansas. Young sparrows has a sensitive period when they learn to sing so this was an efficient way to pass on the song. However, there are some discrepancies with the timelines. Young sparrows who hatch in the spring and summer would be too old to learn by the time they migrate. It would be past 100 days which is known to be the optimal learning period. Another explanation would be that female sparrows might prefer the new song variant in mates. The idea behind that being that males came up with a variant to be unique and stand out. According to Stewart Jones, a biologist at Southern Oregon University agrees that female preference is capable of driving the change, especially at this rate. Follow-up studies are planned for next year.

Range map for white-throated sparrows (Birds of the World).

Read more about the shifts in song dialects of white-throated sparrows: Otter et al., 2020.

Quiz time!
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology created this fun personality quiz based on personality and behaviour characteristics of 22 North American birds: What bird are you most like?

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