It’s day two of our two-day tribute to Canada- the great country to the north that brought us Alanis, Jason Priestly and Bryan Adams. And a reasonable place to get Kinder eggs, too. Today’s post, however, is not about the geese. Today’s post comes from the mnemonic that I learned as a way to remember the song of one of the local birds. When I was an undergrad at Carolina, I was taught that one bird sang, “Oh sweeeeet Canada, Canada, Canada.” It actually became very easy to recognize, because this particular species only has the one song in its repertoire. The bird, of course, is the White-throated Sparrow. In many field guides, they present a different pattern- “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” I’ve just never been a fan of that one, because I don’t know any Sam’s. The ‘Canada’ version makes the birds sound more patriotic, anyway.
Ok, the patriotism of the White-throated Sparrow brings up a totally un-related to science kind of thought in my head and I’m going to share it. As I typed that part, I just imagined all these little sparrows gathering information for the Canadian government and flying it up north. It was a fleeting thought and it made me smile AND it made me remember a conversation I had with someone years ago when they found out I did behavioral research on birds. The only question that she had for me was, “Do you train pigeons for the FBI?” My jaw dropped a bit, I’m sure. She repeated her question, to make sure I understood and then proceeded to tell me that they were following her (the government pigeons, that is).
The point of this post, though, is not the secret applications of science, but to talk about the song of the White-throated Sparrow. I’ve been hearing them a lot in the mornings, mainly from the edge of the woods at Freedom Park between the Nature Museum and Princeton Ave. One of my first pokes into the literature about the song of these birds brought up a fun and interesting conceptual comparison. While people often think of bird song as musical or melodious (though listen to a grackle sometime), researchers usually try to avoid making explicit comparisons between music and bird song. In this paper, the researchers actually bring it up as a means to explain their interest in one particular aspect of bird song.
The facet of the song that they wanted to study relates back to the mnemonics that I described in the beginning of the post. How are we able to recognize the song of this sparrow and differentiate from another sparrow (how can the sparrows do it)? Well, one way that we make this differentiation in human music is by the relationship of one note in a song to another. Weary and Weisman asked if that sort of relationship was present in the songs of these birds. They looked at the characteristics of the notes in the songs of multiple White-throated Sparrows and found very consistent relationships between the frequency of the first note and the frequencies of the second and third notes. Additionally, there are consistent timing patterns in the relationships of note lengths (how long the note is held) to the interval between the notes. That means that even if a bird varies its own song by starting at a lower frequency or producing shorter notes, the overall pattern of the song will remain the same.
So now you know the science behind your ability to recognize White-throated Sparrow songs and why “Oh sweet Canada…” can be used to identify these birds, regardless of individual differences. In the words of Led Zeppelin, “the song remains the same.” Use this information wisely (and keep an eye out for the government pigeons).