Twilight Twittering

A gorgeous male field sparrow perched in a blooming apple tree, WV. ©Wil Hershberger 2006During 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.


  1. I like the Whippoorwill in the background, and in one of the examples I hear an Eastern Towhee in the background. I always enjoy hearing the song of the Field Sparrow, but I’ve never heard the dawn song, though I have heard it at dusk, at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.

  2. Wil, these are wonderful – I especially love the dawn song from West Virginia. I am much more at home staying up till all hours with the crickets and katydids, but I’m going to have to get myself out to a rural area at dawn to hear this!

    Your second daytime Field Sparrow song descends, which I think I’ve only heard once here in NE Ohio. Usually our ascend as they speed up at the end. I wonder how much regional difference exists?

    Thanks for this cheerful spring collection – we have snow on the ground here in Cleveland!

  3. Elaine some older operating system versions may be slow to load; the old laptop I still keep in my kitchen does this. You might try rebooting (close progs/apps, shut down and restart), and/or run your PCs disk clean and defrag steps.

  4. Lang –
    would love to hear the sparrow!!, but don’t have a “play button.” !?! I notice this happens every once in a while with your postings – sometimes the pictorials of your recordings have a forward arrow (lower left corner) where i can hit play, and sometimes they don’t. Does this happen to anyone else ??? Do you know what to do so I can hear the recordings? (Unfortunately banging on my keyboard and making strange sounds of my own hasn’t helped.)

  5. Lang I certainly hope that you are right, that these star-sprites experience a rapturous sense of being well in the world (or whatever …) The song brings to me a felt sense of being ‘drunk on sunshine’ the way we might of an afternoon sponging on the beach or otherwise regrounding ourselves in the earth. Yum.

  6. wonderful recordings as always! I love the second, with the muted calls of the whip-po0r-will in the background. Such a beautiful trilling voice the field sparrow has, they certainly put so much heart into their songs.

  7. I have always loved the dawn song of the field sparrow. This is a common sound around here in summer, and it’s great to hear it now, when it is still wintry out. Verry nice work.

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