Thursday, March 26, 2009

Voice Lessons

Yesterday I wrote a bit about how I went about learning my music for CONCORA’s recent all-Bach concert. (You can read that essay HERE.)

Birds have to learn their songs, too, and if you can catch one in a practice session, it can be pretty interesting.

Last week I heard an unusual bird song outside the kitchen window, in the wisteria near the feeders. Being very near-sighted, I developed excellent aural birding skills at a very young age, and I know the songs and calls of most of the birds I’m likely to see in our area. In fact, when I’m out and about, I locate and identify many songbirds by ear alone. (Most birders develop this skill even if they have good eyesight, but those of us who see poorly really rely on this ability.)

So…what was this song I was hearing? It reminded me a bit of a Song Sparrow’s whistle-plus-warble, but it was a bit shorter and more hesitant. Still, we do have Song Sparrows in the yard, and I had seen one earlier in the day. The bird sang again…No, not a Song Sparrow. Too choppy and strange-sounding, a bit reedy and weaker than a Song Sparrow usually sounds.

Could it have been the Song Sparrow’s cousin, the Fox Sparrow? We’d been fortunate to have a Fox Sparrow at our feeders since January; perhaps this beautiful visitor from the North was trying out his spring song before embarking on his spring migration. The Fox Sparrow’s song is similar to the Song Sparrow’s, but a little shorter and more melodious, a bit reminiscent of the American Robin in its quality of tone. The bird I heard did have a shorter song, but it was not as clear and melodious at the Fox Sparrow song.

Hmm. What could it be? It didn't sound like anything I had heard before. It was clearly a finch or sparrow song. It did not match anything in my mental catalog of bird songs, but it definitely reminded me of a Song Sparrow. Hmmm.

I heard the bird again the next day; the song was a little longer and somehow seemed more confident. (I know, I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s how it sounded.) Finally, I got to the window quickly enough to spot the songster at the top of the wisteria, illuminated by full sunlight, just as it opened its bill and sang again.

It was a Song Sparrow!

Perhaps this is a first-year bird, learning to sing for the first time. Though songs are “hard-wired” in birds brains, they still have to learn and practice.

Over the next few days, I watched and listened as this pretty bird sang and sang, and I marveled at the development in the song as he “practiced.” Now, a week later, the song – much longer, clearer, and more melodious than when I first heard it – sounds like any other mature Song Sparrow. I hope that a mate is attracted to his song and that they will nest in our yard. The Song Sparrow is one of the birds that sings early in the morning, and it’s delightful to wake up to that happy burble.

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