During the earliest of morning twilight in spring, ardent listeners can be enthralled by the dawn song of Field Sparrows. Just the weakest hint of light in the east is all it takes to get the males going, their dawn ritual gracing open fields, pastures, orchards and woodland edges.
To appreciate the Field Sparrow’s dawn performance, we must first become familiar with its normal daytime song, which is a series of sweet slurred whistles that quickly speed up into a trill. Here are two examples, both recorded in West Virginia:
Two examples of normal daytime songs of Field Sparrows, both recorded in WV. ©Wil Hershberger
In contrast to its daytime song, the Field Sparrow’s lovely dawn song is more complex—a series of chips followed by a variable collection of slurred notes and trills. Sometimes, the dawn song differs so much from daytime song that a first-time listener has no idea that a Field Sparrow is responsible. Here are three examples:
Three examples of the rapid twittering of a field sparrow giving dawn song. ©Wil Hershberger, June 1998 at three different locations in WV and MD.
The recording above includes examples of dawn song from three different males. The first is from a hay field in southern Frederick County, MD. You can hear a whip-poor-will singing from a wooded hillside in the background. This fellow is producing a very rich version of field sparrow dawn song. The second example is from a wonderful little wildlife preserve in central Frederick Co, MD. Here the dawn song is not so rich, being a simpler version of the motif. Finally, I include an example from good’ol West Virginia (Jefferson County). This fellow was in an apple orchard that was routinely maintained as a commercial orchard (lots of pruning and spraying to control pests). A virtuoso among field sparrows, this last male has the richest and most pleasing of the field sparrow dawn songs that I have heard.
What do you think of the Field Sparrow dawn song? I think it is a special treat that these birds reserve for the break of day, a rapturous explosion of joy greeting the dawn. Granted, the dawn song may function as a powerful message to neighboring males: “Hey — look, I survived the night and this is my territory. Stay out!” But the singing male is likely not thinking anything of the sort, but is simply enjoying the the moment and feeling really good, maybe even rapturous, as he sings.