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The Songs of Ages

The handsome young male Golden-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla) has been bulking up for what may be his first Spring migration. I found him perched on this moss-laden branch one late-April morning, and he posed patiently for a few minutes before fluttering off. West-coast residents, Golden-crowned Sparrows travel north early each spring to breeding areas in Alaska, British Columbia, and the Yukon.

Ornithologists tell us that about twenty sparrow species frequent North America, and I saw (and photographed) several of them before and after photographing the young male above. That included California Towhees, Chipping Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and White-crowned Sparrows (cousins of the Golden-crowned).

All belong to very large order of birds called Passerines (or perching birds) that include all songbirds. Even as I write this, I’m listening to the sound of a small bird I cannot see but can hear singing delicately outside my window. He’s probably perched in a tree in my neighbor’s yard, and I know it’s a “he” because although both male and female songbirds vocalize with calls, only North American males sing.

Males birds sing to establish territory, defend it against other intruding males, attract the attention of a mate, and prove their healthy enough to warrant a potential mate’s attention.

And as the males trill their repertoire of songs on nearby branches, nestlings—who can’t yet fly or feed themselves—listen attentively to the songs (called “tutor songs”) of the adult males around them. And dutifully practice what they hear. As with boys and girls learning the piano, flute, or violin, practice makes perfect, and the nestlings sing over and over again—hundreds of times, in some species—until their songs sound just like the adults.

They must. The songs sung by male Golden-crowned Sparrows form part of the vocal language of the community. If the nestlings hope to join the community of birds they grew up in, they must learn its language. It will gain them familial acceptance and, when the time comes, help them to attract a mate.

While males teach the youngsters their familial songs, females play a part, too: teaching their young the calls they’ll use to indicate their location, announce the presence of a predator, call for assistance (mobbing calls), and engage in duets with their mates. In fact, recent research suggests that in some songbird species, mothers actually begin teaching calls—in this case, food-begging sounds—to their young during incubation.

Other Fun Facts about Avian Songs and Calls:
• Birds within the same species often develop geological dialects that distinguish them from neighboring communities.
• Bird dialects “can tell [bird] listeners where an individual is from, which other birds they associate with, and even what they prefer to eat.”
• Evidence suggests that “songbirds evolved 50 million years ago in the part of Gondwana that later became Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and Antarctica, before spreading around the world.”
• Some bird vocalizations have demonstrated the existence of an avian syntax used for grammar and sentence structure.
• Readers of the BirdNote website overwhelming named the Swainson Thrush the bird with the “coolest sound.” What do you think?
• While humans produce sounds with their larynx and vocal chords, birds produce sounds with a syrinx and air sac.
• How many songs do you know? With over 1,000 songs, “the Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) has one of the largest repertoires in the bird world.”
• Some cave-dwelling bird species use sound for echolocation.
• Hatchlings babble much like human babies.
• Of the 10,000 species of birds worldwide, nearly half are songbirds.
• During the Gold Rush, Alaskan miners called the Golden-crowned Sparrow “Weary Willie” because the bird’s song sounded like the phrase “I’m so Weary.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Golden-crowned Sparrow, songbirds, and avian vocalizations, these articles can get you started:

American Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow [All About Birds]
Golden-crowned Sparrow [Audubon]
Golden-crowned Sparrow [The Birds of North America]
Golden-crowned Sparrow [Wikipedia]
Songs and Calls
Baby Birds Learn Calls From Their Mothers While Still In The Egg
How and Why Birds Sing
How Baby Birds Learn to Sing
Polly Wants a Conjunction? Birds Learn Artificial Grammar
Auditory experience-dependent cortical circuit shaping for memory formation in bird song learning