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BirdNote®: Chipping Sparrows: Song Learning Starts Early

Air Date: Week of

The Chipping Sparrow can be easily identified by its orange-colored cap. (Photo: Mike Hamilton)

For anyone who has taken a moment to listen to birdsongs on a walk outside or has dropped a crumb on a sidewalk at lunch, the Chipping Sparrow is most likely a familiar sight. But scientists are still unlocking the secrets of this common bird. In this week’s BirdNote, Mary McCann gives us a closer look into recent research that shows how young Chipping Sparrows develop their signature songs.


CURWOOD: Our beloved songbirds are getting ready to make their way south again for the winter. As Birdnote’s Mary McCann tells us, this is actually an important time of year for young birds to learn the songs that will help them survive and ultimately find a mate next spring.

[Chipping Sparrow song]

Few songbirds are more familiar across North America than the Chipping Sparrow.

[Chipping Sparrow song]

Petite and rufous-capped, Chipping Sparrows breed over much of the continent. They winter in the southern U.S. and Central America. Yet familiar as the birds may seem, scientists are still unlocking their secrets. Recent research shows that when baby male Chipping Sparrows beg for food, their first begging calls already show a connection with the songs they will develop.

[Chipping Sparrow begging calls]

A Chipping Sparrow in song. (Photo: Tom Grey)

Soon, the young males’ begging calls mix into what is known as “subsong,” a sort of infant babbling for young male birds. And, very quickly, subsong begins to transition to imitations of adult songs. By the time a young male Chipping Sparrow migrates south in early October, it has developed five to seven “precursor songs” – works in progress, but closer to adult songs. Next spring, when the young male returns north for its first breeding season, it will settle in near an older male. Soon it drops all but one of the precursor songs – the one most like the older male’s song – and in a few days, nearly matches its neighbor note for note.

[Chipping Sparrow song]

Then for the real test of its new song – attracting its first mate.

[Chipping Sparrow song]

I’m Mary McCann.

Chipping Sparrow begging call provided by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org October 2018 Narrator: Mary McCann

CURWOOD: For photos of the chipping sparrow migrate on over to our website L-O-E dot org.



Learn more on the BirdNote website

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology -- Chipping Sparrow


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