This morning as I laid in my bed trying to stir myself into consciousness, I listened for the sounds of the awakening world through my open bedroom window. A couple of Blue Jays called back and forth with their harsh jay ... jay. A cardinal, so often one of the first birds to visit the feeders in the morning, chipped. There was a wing whirr as a Mourning Dove took flight. Slowly the number of twitterings from the goldfinches increased - once I heard a chick-a-dee-dee-dee.
These were the sounds of a fall morning. What a difference, I thought, from four months ago when I could listen to two dozen different species singing their early morning songs, announcing their presence, staking their territory, and calling for a mate. Now the breeding season has been completed.
The White-throated Sparrow has one of the most recognizable songs of any sparrow, or any songbird for that matter. To my ear, the clear, whistled notes of the song sounds plaintive and mournful, a song of ruefulness and longing. I have to remind myself that it is a love song - a song to establish territory, warn off rivals, and attract a mate. There is nothing plaintive about the White-throat’s song to another White-throat. To one of his own kind on breeding territory, it is a declaration of territorial prerogative or an invitation to erotic adventure.
But why are the White-throated Sparrows singing now? Now is their time to gather in flocks, to forage together, to use others of their kind as look-outs for danger, to move southward against impending winter.
Young songbirds learn their species’ songs from the older birds, and the best guess is that the variety of partial songs I am hearing in the early morning are the White-throated juveniles learning and practicing.
When I went downstairs for my second cup of coffee, there was enough light to see the birds on the ground. The mixed flock of sparrows included Song Sparrows, a few Chipping and White-crowned Sparrows, and many White-throated Sparrows. Among the latter, there was a great deal of variation, but looking carefully I could see many whose white throat was a small, dirty white patch - juveniles. From the thick protection of the scrub roses, these were the ones I suspected of singing their incomplete songs.
White-throated Sparrows are transients in my neighborhood. At 700 feet, I am too “tropical” for these northern nesters. I have seldom heard their territorial singing at much less that 1200 feet. The higher into the Green Mountains I have gone, the more common they are during the summer. They are a northern breeding species, so much so that our neighbors to the north render their song as o-canada-canada-canada.
As a group, sparrows often pose many frustrations to bird watchers. Collectively they are known as “little brown jobs” or LBJs. The adult White-throated Sparrow in fresh breeding plumage is a welcome exception; it is readily recognizable with its bright white stripes on the head, bright yellow lores above the eyes, and bright white throat.
But, try to remember next Spring when these sparrows pass through your neighborhood to look at them carefully. Having survived the winter, all will be adult birds and potential breeders. You will notice that some have bright white strips on the head, while others have tan stripes. These are not sexual differences, but color morphs found among both males and females.
Now it gets really interesting - and perhaps confusing. Recent research has shown that white and tan striped males prefer females with white stripes, while both kinds of females prefer tan striped males. White-striped birds are more aggressive than tan-striped ones, and white-striped females seem to be able to out-compete their tan-striped sisters for tan-striped males. The end result of these preferences and aggressive differences is that individuals almost always mate with birds of the opposite morph.
Research has established these behavioral differences between the two color morphs, but has yet to figure out why it occurs or what sort of advantage there may be in this behavior.
It was mid-day when I returned to my desk to continue writing. The White-throated Sparrows were no longer singing. Come Spring, the singing will begin before sunrise and continue through much of the day, but for now the incomplete songs of the young birds are being practiced only at the day’s first light. (Having put the period on the previous sentence, I then heard a single White-throat sing - so they practice mostly at the day’s first light!)
With winter looming, most birds limit their vocalizations to simple call notes. The White-throated Sparrow is a welcome exception. “Pooorr, sam, peabody, peabody, peabody.”