When a bird changes its song . . .

Guest Essay by Kip Hansen – 24 July 2020

featured_imageI like birds – big birds, small birds, common birds, rare birds – all kinds of birds.  I have fed them in my backyard for years and watched then wherever my travels have taken me.  I am not your typical birder – I just find birds interesting.

This story offers a break – albeit a short one — from  the noise and tumult of the various popular delusions  that are currently circulating and stirring up the feeble-minded and faint-of-heart among the general public:  Covid Madness, Climate Change Madness, BLM Madness, Cancel Culture Madness, Trump Derangement Madness – to mention a few.

Please note that there is nothing important about this story.   There is no scientific breakthrough.  But it is interesting on a couple of intellectual fronts.

Here’s the headline from Popular Science:

“White-throated sparrows are ditching their classic song for a new tune

The birds are abandoning their old song with unprecedented speed”

A brief synopsis from the PopSci piece:

“When ornithologist Ken Otter moved to Prince George in northern British Columbia in 1999, he soon noticed that there was something odd about one of the songs the birds in his new home were singing.

Otter was used to hearing male white-throated sparrows, which are common across much of North America, whistling a tune that ends with a repeating set of three notes, known as a triplet. But when he and his colleague Scott Ramsay, now at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, listened carefully to recordings of the sparrows in Otter’s new home, they couldn’t identify the musical trio. They quickly realized that the birds were singing a different variant of the song that ended in a set of two notes called a doublet.

Otter, Ramsay, and their colleagues have been tracking this new dialect over two decades. During this time, it has swept across the continent and begun to replace the old triplet-driven version of the sparrow’s song. This appears to be the fastest documented case where a new dialect has caught on and spread to birds far and wide, the team reported [link is a .pdf] on July 2 in the journal Current Biology.

sparrowSo, for “unprecedented speed”, read 70 years, maybe more (see more on the time period below).

Yes, these audio-orthinologists have actually followed this changing bird song for over 20 years, and have finally turned in their report.  Not only have they followed this changing song, but they have tracked which birds are singing it and where they might be passing it along – a sort of bird-song epidemiology.  They report:  [link to report .pdf]

“In Brief:

Otter et al. study the cultural evolution of song variants in white-throated sparrows. Using songs of nearly 1,800 males recorded between 2000 and 2019, Otter et al. show the progressive adoption of one song variant (doublet-ending song) by males starting in western Canada and sweeping over 3,000 km eastward to replace the traditional triplet-ending songs.

And summarized as:

“White-throated sparrows, Zonotrichia albicolis, for example, traditionally sing a whistled song terminating in a repeated triplet of notes, which was the ubiquitous variant in surveys across Canada in the 1960s. However, doublet-ending songs emerged and replaced triplet-ending songs west of the Rocky Mountains sometime between 1960 and 2000 and appeared just east of the Rockies in the 2000s. From recordings collected over two decades across North America, we show that doublet-ending song has now spread at a continental scale. Using geolocator tracking, we confirm that birds from western Canada, where doublet-ending songs originated, overwinter with birds from central Canada, where the song initially spread. This suggests a potential mechanism for spread through song tutoring on wintering grounds.”

Fascinating.  Fascinating that anyone cares enough about the male mating song of the white-throated sparrow to study it for 20 years over both a 70-year time span and a over a continental-scale geographical area.   Regardless of one’s opinion on the value to human society of such an endeavor,  that is scientific dedication.

The New York Times covered the story as well, and offered audio clips for the two song variants.  You can play them in the Times web page linked or download/listen to them here as .wav files:  Triplet-ending Song and Doublet-ending Song.

We now return you  to your regular programming covering  The Madness of Crowds.

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Author’s Comment:

 In spite of the odd behavior of the humans, Nature just keeps rolling along.  Birth and death, evolving behaviors, landscapes change from forests to meadows to grasslands and back again,  and all without requiring permission from the silly humans who far too often believe they are in charge of everything.

When it all seems just too much, I suggest getting out and sleeping under the open sky watching stars slowly move across the heavens.  I did so last night – as always, very mentally and spiritually refreshing.

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86 thoughts on “When a bird changes its song . . .

  1. This is nothing new. When I spent six months in Sydney in 1987-8, I noticed how the bird-calls differed from one place to another. In Clark Park near where I lived the song ended on a long note, but out at Taronga there was a “whoop” at the end.

    • why are you all so blind ? It is obvious that climate change is causing birds to change their songs. It is unprecedented.

      Did you ever see papers about bird songs changing before 1960 when “carbon” emissions really took off? Of course not. Bird songs never changed before , it must be due rising CO2 .

      Even sparrows ! It’s worse than we thought !

      • Greg – July 24, 2020 at 1:24 pm

        why are you all so blind ? It is obvious that climate change is causing birds to change their songs. It is unprecedented.

        That was close, ……. but “close” only counts in the game of Horseshoes.

        Its not climate change that caused the “tweeter” change, …… it’s the increased CO2 that is causing “climate change” …… and is also causing the “tweeter” change in birds.

        “YUP”, the increase in atmospheric CO2 is responsible for causing the change in the bird’s “tweeter”, ………. just like helium is responsible for causing the “squeaky” changes in a human’s voice.

        Eritas

    • Neil the Australian Magpie is a superb mimic, his call can be mistaken for other birds. I spent some time living overseas in the past and each time I so missed the call of the magpie.

      They are exquisite to hear out in bush or in woodland but they are happy living in the suburbs too and if you gain their trust they are extremely entertaining companions. In think you will enjoy this link.

      https://youtu.be/vErVV9cOmws

      • I lived overseas for a couple of years and missed Magpies, then I found Zurich’s ETH had a small museum of stuffed animals, and their display of Australian song birds had an old school telephone handset and buttons to select a song, and I used to visit just to hear the recorded Magpie carolling.

  2. What? They didn’t identify the obvious reason the birds songs are changing? AGW man, good gods, it’s so obvious!

    I agree with the author about birds, fascinating creatures. After moving to a home with a lot of forest land around it and putting up bird feeders, it’s both fun and instructive, watching their behaviors up close.

      • Those doing the two tweet version were deemed hip and cool and got laid more often.

        They communicated this perverse behaviour to their offspring and it took over.

      • Excerpt from article:

        Otter was used to hearing male white-throated sparrows, ….. whistling a tune that ends with a repeating set of three notes, known as a triplet. But when he and his colleague Scott Ramsay, ……… They quickly realized that the birds were singing a different variant of the song that ended in a set of two notes called a doublet.

        “HA”, just bound to happen, I guess, ….. “sexual discrimination” is no longer tolerated in the white-throated sparrow species,

        The male white-throated sparrow is only permitted to “tweet” for a “two note” partner, …… not specifically for a “three note” female partner.

  3. I used to like birds until they started dropping guano all over the brand new dodger/bimini on my sailboat. Never did it for a decade then all of a sudden it was party city. I tried an ultrasonic blaster, CD’s hanging from a line, fake owls, fake snakes and sleeping on the boat trying to figure out what time of day they did it.

    I ended up getting a cover made, taking it off and washing it down every time I took the boat out. I went out to the dock one time and a couple of birds were sitting on top the fake owl. The other problem were the ospreys sitting on the spreaders eating bloody fish and dropping it down on the boat. I ended up putting small spikes on the spreaders to keep them from roosting there.

    My favorite bird is now the Bald Eagles that roost in the trees, leave my boat alone and every time an osprey gets a fish goes out and takes if from him/her. Serves them right. Don’t want to mess with an eagle. The males get in fights sometimes and it is fascinating to watch them go at it in an air battle.

    • rbabcock ==> A perennial problem and ospreys can be the absolute worst — along with the cormorants — fish-poop. gads, the smell! What part of the world are you in?

    • I read yeah. Those damn ducks use to swim up and drop turds on my swim platform….I had to put the boat in stern first.

    • When I lived in Mercer Island, WA, I had about on a trailer. Problem: Ducks liked to use the pier as a toilet. Nothing worse than that gooey green stuff.

  4. As well, I love birds and now we live where I can see many north American (central to east) birds. We have fields, forests, stream and crop lands. I hope the Veery Thrush doesn’t change it’s tune, I’m rather fond of it.

    • Indeed, about 7 or 8 years ago, while working on a landscaping project down back off and on over a period of about a week, I kept hearing a veery, and the cascading downward spiral of notes inspired me to write a tune for violin/fiddle based on it called “The Veery”. Never did anything with it. Maybe someday.

    • ldd ==> We all love the birds songs we are used to hearing (well, most of them….) For all we know, our great-grandfathers would complain that the birds have changed those beloved songs….

  5. Is this an example of evolution (inherent behavioral change), marketing (learned behavior through observed reproduction success), or statistical phenomenon (Heisenberg just came in there and beat the hell out of the observation count, and the doublet version is the one the birds use when they know people are listening)?

  6. They can describe it, but they cannot understand the “why” of it. Which opens everything up to a wide latitude of conjecture and speculation. Just like so much in nature, including climate.

    • Joel ==> Aren’t humans funny? Imagine, trying to explain, demanding to know, why the white-throated sparrow sings its song one way or another…..

    • It falls under the umbrella term “evolution” with all of its imputed significance of order, which creates an opportunity for people to exercise their powers of inference and discover patterns in the sand, sky, etc. and other purposes.

  7. A friend’s 8 yr old noticed her younger sister picking up one of her (8 year old’s) new toys.
    “Noooo-uhhh!!!” she objected.
    I thought:
    Like…. is this .. like … the same thing … like… as these birds?

    Perhaps we could get these bird folks to do some science on the unprecedented spread of Valley Talk in North America starting with my own daughter who has never been to the ‘Valley’ and certainly never hears it …like.. from me.
    Must be climate change, except there hasn’t been much of that here.

  8. Would be nice, if f.e. wood pigeons changed their song, we have a lot of them here and nothing is more monotone than their “song” over the days and year 😀

    • Krishna Gans ==> Not all bird songs are ‘beautiful” or”melodic” to everyone — a matter of taste. Woodpigeon cooing is rather monotonous….

  9. The Hawaiian Kaua’i ‘o’o bird, last heard in 1987, is now presumed extinct. A field recording of birdsong was captured by ornithologist H. Douglas Pratt and made part of a collection at Cornell University… and then Robert Davis sweetened the sound and uploaded to youtube a short but popular video of the last Kaua song ever recorded.

    It is suggested that the pauses in the song may have been moments where the bird listens, and a distant mate should have responded. When the bird’s extinction became all but certain this particular recording — and the idea of calling for a mate when you are the last of your kind — was as sad as a ton of bricks. Sad bricks. As Jasper Barnes remarked, “This is the kind of thing that gives me a feeling of existential horror.”

    Jakob Kudsk Steensen was particularly moved for the bird was presumed extinct the year he was born. Their only connection, this short MP3 file. Steensen wrote this must-read essay describing personal angst, bits of interview with original recordist Pratt and the grassroots remembrance movement for this bird in art and media.

    Though the existential horror remark is really good, my personal favorite is a brilliant suggestion by one Omar Rifaii that makes me proud to me part of this hive mind:

    “Someone should take this record and play it next to a [master mimic] lyre bird, it’s a real shame that such a beautiful animal is lost to us but perhaps his song could be sung once again in nature in honor of its memory.”

    Among the media inspired in the birds memory is my own, an ambient loop of the o’o along with the Voyager Spacecraft sounds of Jupiter.

    • Interested, how we all want to believe in evolution but we have such a hard time with extinction.

  10. Careful Kip, or they (the World’s avian taxonomists) will declare these separate species, even though the birds will look identical.
    I have found this observing birds around the World. Eg come to Britain and view a magpie (very common). Watch it and listen to its call. Go to Anchorage and watch the identical bird behaving in identical ways but talking in a completely different language. Unlike with Brits and Americans, the taxonomists have now separated the species, despite the very clear similarities. Without boring your readers even more, I have seen this sub-division of species develop consistently in recent years. It seems that avian taxonomy is not a settled science. Who’d have thought?

    • Ian == The currently used defintions of biological species are specious at best — and the taxonomists are confusing the biological world rather than ordering it.

      A shame — it does allow the crazed environmentalist crowd a great dealk of ammunition using the flawed endangered species meme to try to control the world.

    • Diversity dogma enables division, exclusion, and administration/management, based on inference from, and exploitation of, low information attributes.

  11. Some interesting science articles on birdsong:

    https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/the-development-of-birdsong-16133266/

    Excerpt: Each individual bird has its own song repertoire, which consists of different versions of a song, called a song type. There is large variation in repertoire size between species. In about a third of all songbird species, birds have only a single song type in their repertoire while in about 20% of all species, the repertoire consists of more than five songs (MacDougall-Shackleton 1997). In some cases, such as brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum), song types can exceed 2,000!

    https://ornithology.com/ornithology-lectures/songs-calls/

    Excerpt: In the wild, young Chaffinches learn some details of song from their parents or from other adults in the first few weeks of life. At this stage a young bird absorbs the general pattern of the song. But not until the critical learning period the following spring does the bird develop the fine details of the song. This is the time the young wild Chaffinch first sings in competition with other Chaffinches (for females, territory) and it learns the details of the song from its more mature neighbors. This, of course, leads to a bit of individual variation in song, although the general pattern is characteristic of the species. So song is an integration of both genetic and learned components and calls are entirely genetic.

  12. White-throated sparrow language :

    Tu-tu-tu tu-tu-tu tu-tu-tu :
    – the climate is fine

    Tu-tu tu-tu tu-tu tu-tu :
    – 8 months left before climate disruption.

    • There is also a bird that sings “Gimme all your money or the planet burns in 12 years!” I think it is the Red-Breasted Wallet Sucker.

  13. Hearing the birds in the morning loudly singing, I always think they are saying things like:
    “Hey, mutha, I fix you face you come ’round here!”
    and other such comments.
    Otherwise, why waste the energy? They can’t be singing just for the joy of it. That wouldn’t be natural.

    • Joel,
      Most birds aren’t encouraged to pay exorbitant prices for indoctrination into the nihilistic pseudo-religion of Progressivism, or neo-Marxism if you prefer. They have no reason to be angry or unhappy except for lack of water, food or shelter.
      I’ve got about 80-90 hummingbirds of four different species enjoying my feeders right now and they seem far more playful than not. Of course I usually get one or two Rufous males who think they own a feeder or two but I have found dousing them with a spray nozzle on a hose convinces them otherwise. Maybe firehouses would have a similar effect on the petulant kiddies rioting and acting out in our cities right now!

      • Abolition Man ==> With that many species of hummers, you must live in the Northwest US?

        • Kip,
          Mountains of the Southwest. We get Rufous, Broadtailed, the tiny Calliope and, my favorite, the Black-chinned with his amethyst choke. At the peak last year I went through a 25lb bag of sugar in less than a week!

        • Had them year ’round (Northwest). Constant 20 plus all day long trying to get to the feeder. All different kinds.

          One guy would go up in the air 40 or so feet and dive bomb straight down, turning just before the ground, yelling “wee wee wee” as he made the turn at the bottom. After a while another was doing this, but all the others thought those two were nuts and ignored them. (they were moving so fast on the way down that my dog didn’t even try to track them even they got within a few feet of her. And no they weren’t dive bombing us … they were just screwing around like that all day long)

  14. The evolution of Mockingbirds is quite rapid. My tomatoes got ripe and they showed and started pecking. Hit 16 tomatoes one morning. I started shooting and got four in a couple of hours. Been a week since I’ve had an issue. Plenty still around but those survivors don’t land in my garden!

    • eyesonu ==> Bird netting can be cheaper and more effective then bullets or shotgun shells. Less blood too…..

      • KH,

        Tried that in the past. Tried 32 dummy tomatoes. Tried an owl. Tried suspended aluminum pie plates @ 4 ft. Using all four now. Pellets work and the dog gets the retrieve!

    • When car alarms first hit the main stream in the early 80’s the mockingbirds very quickly incorporated the alarm sounds into their songs.

      It was interesting to note, at the time.

      Cheers

      Max P

  15. Mockingbirds are rare in my neighborhood, but I have heard them mimic wrens, thrashers, and even woodpeckers. One year about a decade or so ago the mockingbirds were abundant in my neighborhood and I heard and saw many during my morning walks. Just for fun I started whistling a few notes from the William
    Tell Overture (Lone Ranger’s theme song) on the first mile or so of my walks. The first day a few mimicked my crude whistling, and by the end of the week I could start whistling for the first few minutes and then enjoyed the remainder of the first mile by hearing their beautiful songs all around me.
    The terrain, soil type, and vegetation density changed during the remainder of my walk and they and their songs ended.
    The fun of hearing them and their mimicking for a mile of so of my walk ended that year and I have not been able to get a single bird to mimic me again and they have not been in abundance since that year.
    I do not understand their ways as they change over the years and decades–but they do!
    Now who is the birdbrain? Me or the mockingbirds?

    We have lived in the same house for 36 years and I have not seen such an abundance of mockingbirds before or after this special year. Some years there a few, and in others there are none in this neighborhood. In none of these other years have I been able to hear mimic the William Tell Overture

    • Leonard ==> Population dynamics are very strange and in many cases — chaotic (in the sense of Chaos Theory). Changes in the environment that favor or disfavor a particular species can have very out-sized non-proportional effects on local population sizes.

      Great story about the mockingbirds. Thanks for sharing.

      • Leonard,
        I used to hate mockingbirds when I was a kid as one always seemed to singing outside my window on hot, summer nights when I couldn’t sleep. It’s funny how time can change one’s viewpoint; I now think of their song as a lullaby to help me sleep!
        Sadly I haven’t heard from them or their relative, the Curve-billed Thrasher, of late. Hopefully they’ll come back to my yard again soon!

  16. In the UK there was a period when all the Starlings were habitually doing trill phones and car alarms – don’t hear them mimicking so much these days for some reason.

    I have noticed our Robins seem to sound more and more like our Blackbirds year on year.

    The most beautiful ‘bird song’ I ever heard was not a bird at all. I was convinced there was a Nightingale or other exotic bird outside my kitchen window, after much puzzlement, it turned out to be a wood mouse!

    • MrGrimNasty ==> Good story about the mouse. I once went out in the middle of the night to see what bird was singbedroom ing outside my window night after night and found it was five orphaned baby raccoons, calling for their mother (who had unfortunately died while robbing the hen house….)

    • There was a case where a man used to use the word ‘actually’ about every other word in his sentences…

      and the local starlings picked it up!

  17. My bird changes his speech all the time. First thing in the morning you can hear him cocking his laser gun (chhk chhk… then you hear him shooting his laser.. bew bew bew bew bew. He continues chattering and will say things like “I GOT YOU!” then laugh hahahahahahahahaha. He is hilarious. He knows ‘peek-a-boo’, and ‘I got you’, and ‘I love you’, ‘Hello sweetheart”, and much more. He makes his own stuff up from time to time and recently started saying “peek-a-got-you”, and other weird mixtures without hearing it from anyone. My little yellow bib lorikeet. Birds are quite intelligent.

  18. Kip,
    Thanks for the welcome respite from the insanity of our troubled times! As an avid ornithophile I take great joy from observing and listening to my avian friends and neighbors.

    I am very disgusted and disheartened by the Audubon Society’s stance on the destruction of birds, bats and insects by the Green Blob’s corporate welfare wind scam! It would be fascinating to have a discussion of possible solutions to this ongoing atrocity. There are numerous longtime environmentalists on this site and I’m sure many are concerned about the species being driven to extinction by these wasteful monstrosities!

    • Abolition Man ==> In my opinion, National Audubon has lost the thread — gone off track — skittered off its sensible purpose into being a radical misguided advocacy group that spends most of its effort raising money and attacking the logical steps being taken by the U.S. federal government.

      Local grass-roots Audubon groups do good work.

  19. Could you tell me just what tune a Mocking birds sing, from what I hear it a medley of about every other bird songs. I grew up and the north and miss the robin’s song in the spring, so solace is the Mocking birds song which is pretty much 24/7 most of the year except in the high heat of our summer days. I was puzzled when I was out earlies to day as to what bird was making the racket I was hearing. It came to me finally, it was a raven.

    • I’ve no clue what a mocking bird sounds like when isn’t imitating another bird.
      But one of my friends told me of a mocking bird that would let out the call of a red tailed hawk.
      After the other birds scattered, it would come down to his bird feeder.

  20. Food.

    What do these “guys” feed on?

    Parametric change in food, the main energy source,
    usually effects all or almost all behavior…
    singing also, included.

    cheers

  21. Some say that song birds around Buckingham Palace, London, have been heard mimicking “God Save the Queen.”. In Berkeley Square the nightingales have not changed their tune.
    Geoff S

  22. I have lived in Temple, TX (Bell county, central Texas) all of my 58 years. Bell county has only one species of grackle (Black bird). During a time period roughly equal to the recent warming period I noticed that grackles had changed their mating call from the one I had known so well from my teenage/young adult life. They went to a much shorter, less intricate call.
    There was one study from 2012 that claimed bird songs changed with city noise. But this wouldn’t explain the local change in grackle calls for the following reason.
    In the past five years I noticed that grackles are slowly reverting back to the call they used in the 1970s-80s. As Temple, TX has grown from 35,000 people in 1980 to around 76,000 today I can’t believe that in the past five years Temple is suddenly becoming as quiet as it was in 1980. So city noise can’t explain the change in grackle calls.

    • Myron ==> Ah, many of the “whys” supplied by humans are imaginary . . . . mostly we don’t have a clue for the “why?” questions of Nature.

  23. For a couple of years we had an increasing number of Eurasian collared dove with annoying habits and a song of goo-GOO-goo (so says Wiki). There have not been so many this year.

    We feed Black Oil Sunflower seeds (mostly) and have lots of Valley Quail (Calif. Quail). Some claim the call is Chi-ca-go, but I hear “Come over here.”

    Eastern and Western Meadowlark songs differ, and Westerners have fewer.

    • John, people here in rural Australia like to keep guinea fowl. Not only are their eggs good eating but the birds attack and kill snakes. They also sound a raucous call as a warning which sounds very much like “look up, look up, look up”.

      Now anyone who owns guinea fowl will hear them saying this and it will drive them nuts… or they will be saved from a snake encounter.

  24. Perhaps it’s human caused Bird Acoustification?
    Like Ocean Acidification?
    Science.

  25. From the article: “This suggests a potential mechanism for spread through song tutoring on wintering grounds.”

    Monkey see, monkey do.

    It *was* a very interesting article, Kip.

  26. I don’t have a reference other than an aging memory but I do remember reading somewhere a decade or so ago that birds in the suburbs are “singing” earlier in the morning due to the increase in noise as us humans begin to wake up.
    I don’t know if that’s true or not.

  27. From Central Ohio:
    For the first time in over 10 years we began again to feed the birds.
    I’m glad we did.
    We were given a couple of seed bells, one of them loaded with hot sauce to deter squirrels.
    We’ve continued with the hot seed bells adding suet cakes.
    In the spring, before the leaves were on the trees, I once counted 7 blue birds outside our kitchen window.
    I’d seen a blue bird or two at times but never that many at once.
    (Since then I’ve learned that, if like blue birds, it’s worth paying a bit extra for the dried meal worms to mix in with your seed.)
    I’ve also seen a pair of cowbirds frequent our yard. Cowbirds don’t build nest. The female lays an egg in other birds’ nest for them to raise it. It will push the other eggs out after it hatches. ( I did see a male cowbird five years or more ago before emerge from a nest wrens had made in one of our hanging baskets out front. It had an egg in it’s beak.)
    A month or so ago I noticed 3 birds in our front yard. Two sparrows were hopping looking for bugs. Then I noticed that they were then going to the third bird, which was almost twice their size, and feeding it. I assume they were cowbird victims.
    I’ve also seen a pair of catbirds. Never noticed catbirds before. That get their name from one of their songs which sounds like a cat. I’ve heard it. It does.
    If a cowbird lays an egg in a catbird nest, the catbird will break it and eject it from the nest.
    (Good for them!)

  28. We quit feeding the birds, but exactly on purpose. A racoon got three of our ducks, so the other two had to go into a greenhouse for safety for the rest of the winter. Spring hit and so did the grasshopper hordes, so the ducks age hoppers. We have started feeding the ducks again, but no sign of the birds so far. Plus, the drought killed the grass and limited the mosquito population, so the nighthawks even seem to have vanished.

    Whlle I like watching birds and photographing them, the one that signs LOUDLY at 2AM better stay hidden…That is one bird I do not like.

    • Sheri ==> I have a crazed night-singer in my area as well — starts in just before dawn . . . ..

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