Wild Profile: Meet the song sparrow

A song sparrow perched on a bare branch By Paul Reeves Photography/Shutterstock

Have you heard the song sparrow yet? This little bird’s singing is a sure sign that spring is within grasp (thankfully). In late winter, male song sparrows start belting out their eight or 10 melodies; they’ll sing for hours straight. (Females sing too, but their tunes are softer and shorter.) Males with the best playlists win the best mates.

Male song sparrows are also very good at recognizing the songs of other sparrows. They can clock whether a particular tune is coming from a regular neighbour, or a bird just passing through on the way to more permanent digs. Good ear, guys! Unlike other spring-singing birds, like red-winged blackbirds, and many warblers, song sparrows keep singing past early summer. (Song. Sparrows.) Why? Males aim to produce two broods, not just one, per season.

Here’s how it works: the female of a mated pair begins building a nest in April or early May, over the course of 10 days. They’re ground nests, hidden by grass or weeds. (Song sparrows aren’t bothered by humans; they’ll often build their nests beside flower beds.) Once the first clutch of eggs hatches, fathers take over feeding and caring for the youngsters while mothers start building the second nest. Sadly, even though both broods usually get equal amounts of care, over the same amount of time, the second one struggles. Babies No. 2 have less time to learn the bird behaviours they need to survive before fall and winter hit.

For a young male song sparrow, a key advantage of being born early is that he has more chances to listen to adult sparrows and build up his songbook of lady-wooing melodies. Usually, he adds a few of his own twists, like a singer adding his own layer of harmonies or vocal riffs to a cover song or remake.

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