White-throated Sparrow: Whistler of the North

photo of a White-throated Sparrow

Among our native sparrows (family Emberizidae), there are a number of beautiful singers. The Fox Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, and Bachman’s Sparrow come to mind—all possess rather complex, melodic songs. But to me, perhaps of the most beautiful sparrow song of all is that of the White-throated Sparrow, a handsome species that breeds in northern areas where spruce and fir trees abound (see range map).

The song of the male is simple yet elegant. It is composed of clear, pure whistles. There is usually a noticeable pitch change at the beginning of each song (after the first or second note) and most songs end with two or three “triplets”—whistles that are composed of three obvious pulses.

Individual males sing only one stereotyped song pattern, and neighboring males may sing noticeably different songs. The cadence of one common song pattern is revealed by two popular memory phrases: “My Sweet, Canada, Canada, Canada” and “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” Below is an example of a song that closely fits the cadence of these memory phrases (the song is repeated twice with a long silent interval removed):

White-throated Sparrow song. 9 June 1990. Adirondack Mountains near Paul Smiths New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

Our Video Footage: Our featured video is composed of footage that was gathered near Paul Smiths, New York, in the northern reaches of the Adirondack Mountain region of upstate New York. The setting was an open parkland populated by an abundance of balsam fir trees, most below twenty feet in height. The situation was perfect for videotaping because we could easily follow birds around and get good views. Nothing beats watching a male White-throated Sparrow sing his heart out from high in a Balsam Fir!

White-throated Sparrow, white-striped color morphColor Morphs: The White-throated is unique among birds in that it exhibits two distinct color morphs that coexist in populations. Some individuals have striking white throats and a prominent white stripe above each eye—these are referred to as white-striped. Other individuals have dull white throats and a tan stripe above each eye—these are referred to as tan striped. There is a genetic basis for these differences and researchers have discovered that white-striped males are more aggressive and territorial than tan-striped males. It is also interesting that white-striped females often produce songs, although they are generally shorter in duration and less steady in pitch than male songs.

Dawn Chorus: Below is a gentle twittering dawn chorus from the same location that we gathered our video footage. A male White-throated Sparrow is singing close by and a number of others can be heard sounding off at various distances in the background. American Robins can also be heard, along with Nashville Warbler. Mink Frogs, Green Frogs, and a Red-winged Blackbird sound off from a nearby wetland:

Dawn chorus dominated by White-throated Sparrows. 4:30 am. 6 May 2009. Near Paul Smiths New York in the Adirondack Mountain region of upstate New York. Recorded by Lang Elliott.

If you’re wondering where the Adirondacks Mountains are located, here is a map (note: we are not revealing the exact location where we gathered our video and recordings):

Comments

  1. Zack Frieben says:

    Excellent video! This year, I discovered that White-Throated Sparrows are fairly abundant spring migrants here in Three Rivers, MI. I saw quite a few and heard quite a few more. They were all in forested areas with lots of dense shrubs. I saw one of them singing on a log just 10 feet in front of me.

    The recording sounds a lot like one of your recordings from one of your soundscape blogs. I can’t remember the name of the blog.

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