By David Spector Gazette Contributing Writer
“Hip, hip, hooray, boys, spring is here.”
This, according to one classic transliteration of the song sparrow’s song, is a characteristic sound of a North American spring, a sound that actually starts in winter and continues through the summer. Male song sparrows, those that spent the winter here and those recently returned north from warmer regions, are now singing to proclaim their presence, establishing their territories and attracting females.
Song sparrows, distinguished by streaks coalescing into a central dark spot on the breast, are among the most widespread species of sparrows on this continent. They live in brushy habitats, such as often occur on the edges of fields, old orchards, backyards, etc.
Their song can usually be recognized by two or three clear, ringing introductory notes followed by a relatively long series of more complex notes and trills.
Listen closely to a song sparrow, and you may hear him switch from “Hip, hip, hooray,” to “Madge, Madge, Madge, put on the tea kettle, -ettle, -ettle.” The change is not simply a difference in traditional transliterations, the ways in which two people attempt to represent the same sound of a non-human species. Rather, the change is between two of the songs in the individual’s repertoire. A song sparrow typically has about a half-dozen to a dozen different songs that he sings with “eventual variety,” singing one song repeatedly for about 10 renditions before switching to a repeated series of another song.
When I hear a song sparrow, especially here in western Massachusetts, I often think of Amherst native Margaret Morse Nice (1883-1974) who, in the 1920s and ’30s, did pioneering research on this species in Columbus, Ohio, where she was living. Nice, a leader in the emerging science of ethology (the study of animal behavior), worked with many species of birds, including several species of warblers that she studied during visits to her parents’ home in Pelham. She was among the earliest researchers to use colored leg bands for marking a population of wild birds, and her song sparrow work, eventually published in two volumes totaling nearly 600 pages, was by far the most detailed done on wild bird behavior in the early 20th century.
Nice paid close attention to singing. Using a combination of English syllables and slashes and dashes to indicate on paper how she heard songs, she kept track of the repertoire of individual males (a technique that readers can try with a backyard song sparrow). Her estimates of the number of songs each male sang were similar to those since obtained with much more sophisticated recording and analysis techniques.
Nice’s description of the stages in the development of songs by young males, both wild and hand-reared individuals, has served as a framework for research on song learning of this and many songbird species ever since.
The widespread and accessible song sparrow has continued to be closely studied, and, as researchers build on each other’s results and techniques, more and more detail has emerged about the singing (and many other aspects of the biology) of this species. For example, studies in the Seattle area have found that males seem to use different songs to indicate levels of aggression. Responding to a neighbor with the same song the neighbor is singing is an aggressive signal, a song that the neighbor doesn’t know is a less aggressive response, and a different song that both individuals have in their repertoires is an intermediate signal.
Of course, each discovery raises more questions—in this case about the details of these interactions and how general these patterns are. For example, do different populations of song sparrows use songs in the same way? How are other songbird species similar and different in their singing behaviors? As today’s researchers build on Nice’s foundations, future students of song sparrow behavior will extend understanding of the species in interesting new directions. So, when you hear a song sparrow announcing spring, I invite you to listen carefully and think of our local song sparrow researcher. As Nice herself said at the end of her autobiography, “The study of nature is a limitless field, the most fascinating adventure in the world. . . . We must try to open the lives of the unseeing to the beauty and wonder of the earth and its wild life.”
David Spector is a former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and teaches biology at Central Connecticut State University. Hear examples of song sparrow song.
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