Our goal is to measure how patterns of variation in songs of the white-throated sparrow change over time and space. From previous recordings, we know that songs in this species vary over distance (across Canada) and over time (over the years), but what we don’t know is how these changes come about, and whether or not migration patterns play a role.
White-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) are plump, brown songbirds with a black-and-white strips on their head and yellow lores (the spot just between and above the eyes and the bill). They have grey tummies and a bright white throat.
Interestingly there are two different colour morphs: tan-striped and white-striped. These physical differences correspond to behavioural differences as well with white-striped females and males acting more aggressive than their tan-striped counterparts1
In addition to variation in colour, white-throated sparrows also exhibit variation in songs. One form of variation is in the rhythm of the song ending. We have been recording white-throated sparrows across Canada over the last decade and have found that some individuals sing doublet endings and some sing triplet endings.
For example, in eastern Canada, white-throated sparrows are often said to sing “Oh SWEEET Ca-na-da Ca-na-da Ca-na-da”, which are triplets (ca-na-da, three notes in one beat). However, in western Canada, the birds are more likely to sing “Oh SWEEET Ca-na Ca-na Ca-na-da”, which are doublets (Ca-na, two notes in one beat) followed by an ending “da”.
Changes over space and time:
This beautiful little male was recorded by Garth McElroy and Jim Zipp, is this male singing doublets or triplets?
These sparrows breed in Canada and north-eastern USA during the summer, then migrate south in the fall (Aug-Nov) and overwinter in the south east and south west of the USA. In the fall, they once again migrate back up to their summer breeding grounds.
This range map was created from eBird sitings is another example of the power inherent in citizen science. Check out the interactive map of eBird sightings yourself. An especially impressive map of migration in the USA has been created by the eBird team by modelling user sightings data along with data on habitat, climate and human population centres.