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The White-Throated Sparrow

 

Have you ever heard a piece of birdsong in the morning and then been unable to get it out of your head? It seems odd to call this kind of song an earworm, but that’s what it is. I was out with Cricket and Butterfly, and this bird just kept singing, over and over, until I found myself trying to sing along. First, I tried to whistle the song, but my whistling skills seem to have dropped off over the years. So then I tried to sing it, but it was early in the morning and my upper register was not awake yet. As a result, my version of this bird’s song was an octave lower, slower, and maybe a bit jazzier than the bird intended. It’s possible that the bird wouldn’t even recognize his song the way I sang it.

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“I hear birdies.”

After getting rid of the poopy bags, washing my hands, and giving the girls their morning dental treats, I sang the song to Mom (she is basically a savant when it comes to the names of birds and plants, just don’t ask her to remember the name of a person she has known for twenty years). Mom went to her best friend, Google, for help, and she found a bird song website. We listened to the songs of all of the possible suspects, based on who she knows to frequent our yard, and I said, No, No, Nope, Not even close, until she found the singer. The website said that the White-Throated Sparrow has two songs: one that goes up, and one that goes down. The one I kept hearing was the one that goes down.

Mom took out her trusty recorder to help me figure out the starting note, which turned out to be F over High C. When my voice is warmed up I can hit G above high C, but that early in the morning it was a challenge. And of course, as soon as I finally managed that F, Cricket duplicated it without a problem.

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The singer!

The whole idea that a website can capture all of the birdsongs, because each type of bird has only two or three songs in her repertoire, and sings these same songs over and over again, for the rest of her life, boggles my mind. I wonder what would happen if a baby bird, trying out her voice for the first time, accidentally sang a different song from her parents. Is that what gets babies kicked out of the nest prematurely? Or are baby birds physically incapable of that kind of heresy? Maybe it’s like a pre-set recording in the bird’s throat and any time he tries to speak that song is the only thing that comes out.

Then there’s the Mocking bird, who can mimic any other bird’s song, which is kind of like doing Karaoke for your entire life. Is that better?

I originally thought that the singing bird might also be one of the birds building a nest complex under Mom’s air conditioner. It’s a couple, actually, and Mom gave them a handful of colorful scraps of fabric, to help with their interior decorating, but they are still busy with construction, adding room after room to this McMansion of a nest. The nest builders are Sparrows too, but from another sect. Maybe the singer is the construction manager, giving his orders from on high! I’ll have to be more careful singing along to these bird songs in the future. Who knows what kinds of messages I’ve been sending to the bird population without realizing it?! Wait, what if they all think that I’m a Mocking bird?!

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“You’re not the mockingbird, Mommy. That’s MY job.”

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The very busy birdie.

 

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-throated_Sparrow/sounds

 

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About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

72 responses »

  1. Nice write up. Thanks and congrats.

    Reply
  2. hairytoegardener

    I love to hear the birdsong in my backyard even though most of the time I don’t recognize the bird by its voice. I haven’t a clue why, but the songs give me hope and lighten anything dark. I listened to one of the songs of the white-throated sparrow on-line, and it was very pretty, but I don’t know if it was the version that goes up or the one that goes down that you heard. Do you know if anyone has ever based their musical notes on birdsong?

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  3. I love this post! Mockingbirds were my father’s favorite bird. They have a song of their own, a lovely song. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has this app, Merlin bird identification which is great, but sounds like you have your own app in your mom. Thank you for this!

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  4. Try listen to the Lyrebird, they can even mimic chainsaws. Even Benji is impressed by the bird (https://lifeofbenji.com/2017/03/23/home-sweet-home/).

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  5. I used to hear this annoying bird every day that used to drive me crazy. It’s not necessarily a terrible sound but it’s constant and repetitive. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it wasn’t a bird at all! It was a squirrel! You can see the roof of the neighbors house and there are squirrels that run across the top edge all the time and after years of thinking I was hearing birds, I saw the offender making the noise, a squirrel! Now that I know it’s coming from the squirrels, it doesn’t bother me so much. I think I even like it. 🙂

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  6. Uh oh. It looks like Cricket has spoken. No singing, Rachel.

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  7. Oh my gosh, it DOES sound like Oh Canada! No wonder you had the song stuck in your head.

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  8. I listened to the two songs on the link and the first one (recorded by Curtis Marantz) has left me in no doubt that it inspired a songwriter. The opening chords are spookily similar! Maybe she even helped inspire the look 🙂

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  9. Only 2 or 3 songs?? I have more than five: 1) How much is that doggy in the window? 2) Who let the dogs out? 3) When the Swallows return to Capistrano 4) Bye Bye, Birdie 5) and all of The Greatest Hits of Big Bird. Maybe I’ve been around peeps too much?

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  10. Once, when I was much younger but still a bit old for climbing trees, I noticed one particular bird stopped by several neighborhood trees to sing its song, and had a regular schedule that landed it in a maple in our front yard.

    I never could catch a sight of the bird, but, knowing it’s circuit would land it in our maple tree at a specific point, I climbed the maple and waited.

    Shortly after, just as predicted, it landed in the tree, seemed unaware or unconcerned that I was there, and it sang its song! I couldn’t believe how loud it was up there close by, especially when it turned out to be a yellow warbler!

    https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Yellow_Warbler/sounds

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  11. very interesting to read and see pictures

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  12. Unfortunately, we don’t get White-throated Sparrows in Europe. What a lovely little song! Pip

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  13. I have often tried to duet with blackbirds in the local park. I’m pretty sure that they get bored with my whistling after a few of my atonal attempts to mimic their grace.

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  14. what a wonderful photo! I love waking up to the sounds of the birds in spring- and watching them when I walk. Wonderful creatures!

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  15. So beautiful, thank you 😌

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  16. Such a great post Rachel. You had us smiling imagining you trying to figure out this bird song. Now we’re probably going to go around the house all day imitating bird songs, lol. That’s probably better though then imitating some of the songs on the radio.

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  17. How fun! A bright note of an essay …

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  18. My husband sings and gets our dog howling along. They both find this hilarious. Me not so much! As for the nest under the air conditioner. Last summer I kept waking up to the baby birds squealing for food, since that is the window next to our bed.

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  19. gingerbread76

    Not exactly on topic, but this made me think of my friend Lynn’s parrot, Bobbie. I think it’s an African Grey? It was my first time meeting a talking parrot in person. What I did not realize is that parrots (I guess all parrots, but this parrot for sure) mimic not only words but voices. Bobbie will meow just like a cat. Bobbie will sometimes yell at the dogs to “Lay down!” in Lynn’s boyfriend’s booming authoritative voice. Bobbie will also sometimes tell Lynn’s husband “Don’t be such an ass!” (You can guess whose voice she says THAT in.)

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  20. I love listening to the birds in the morning too! Have lived all across the US and experienced all kinds of different birdsongs. Here in San Diego the birds can sound very tropical!

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  21. When I groom our Aussies outside, the fur is gone in an hour or so from the lawn. I recently tucked some dog hair into a bush outside our kitchen window and watched the finches and sparrows feast on the nesting material. I don’t think you can use fur that has been treated with flea/tick medication but we do that treatment orally.

    Fun post, thank you.

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  22. I often wonder what birds are singing in my neighborhood. I will have to check out the app. You must have a lovely voice. As they say, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. Love that last shot of the bird building its nest.

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  23. I love birds, and I used to study the white-throats for a side research project during my grad school. You probably heard a male singing to defend his territory, spring is such a busy time for birds! Have you heard about the four “genders” of white-throats? It was fascinating! http://www.audubon.org/news/the-fascinating-and-complicated-sex-lives-white-throated-sparrows

    On learning songs: “While some birds hatch knowing the songs they will sing as adults, the true songbirds have to learn how to communicate effectively. Songbirds begin learning their songs while still in the nest, a phase known as the critical period, when nestlings listen to the adults singing around them. Following fledging, young birds attempt to replicate these songs, practicing until they have matched their tutor’s song. Some songbirds, such as the catbirds, thrashers, and mockingbirds, learn to mimic other species—frogs, cats, and even car alarms.” (Cornell’s All About Birds)

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  24. I love birds and love to whistle and sing with them, especially the mocking bird. I really enjoyed this post. I recently put out a post about a mockingbird that stays around my place, they are so entertaining and I love interacting with them. Thank you for sharing about the sparrow. Hugs

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  25. Charisse Colbert

    That is a nice photograph of the sparrow. I think you should record the sound and put a video recording on here for us to enjoy.

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  26. Can’t say I have listened to a particular bird or its song. I have four large trees around me and at various times during the day there are many birds passing through the area. No one builds a nest nor stays long enough probably because of the cats, but sometimes it can be quite a cacophony of sound – particularly in the mornings.

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  27. Seems like, yeah, I have heard a bird just sink the same thing over and over and over and over over and over and over and over over and over and over and over over and over and over and over over and over and over and over over and over and over and over over and over and over and over . . . . so I’ve had a birdsong stuck in my head.

    The mockingbirds are amazing the sounds they can reproduce!

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  28. I love to listen to the birds singing in the surrounding yards. Some I recognize, and others, not. I miss the variety of blackbirds and the killdeer calls from my childhood, living right next to farms and wetlands. Less variety, here in a large town. A group of cities, really. Close enough to drive out into the countryside with little enough time spent in transit.

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  29. The white-throated sparrow does have a memorable, sort of haunting song. I had to identify it as soon as I heard it the first time, too! But this year our only nest-builders at home are starlings.

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  30. Of all the bird songs I know, the White-Throated Sparrow song is the one that gets stuck in my head. I didn’t know what they were for years, then discovered the song online a few years ago. I just started hearing them here this week, but they really remind me of trips up north in Canada. Up there, theirs is the first song you hear in the morning, and it follows you all day long.

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  31. Up on our allotment (vegetable garden) we have a robin which we have been feeding since last autumn. He has lots of different songs (robins definitely have more than 2 or 3) and I am now thoroughly familiar with his voice. I consider him to be ‘my’ robin….which he really isn’t 🙂 The only other birdsong I know is the mad and enthusiastic cry of blackbirds. There are blackbirds in nearly every garden of the UK. In spring they are utterly raucous.

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  32. I’m just commenting here because I love the photos you posted here! They are so nice and wonderful!

    BTW, I noticed that you liked my post and I want to know if you want to be part of it or not.

    Thanks!

    Reply
  33. Delightful! You and your mom are great! My grandmother was our bird song expert. Glad you have a yard full of joyful songs – even if for some birds its the same ones over and over.

    Reply

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