Birds

The White-throated Sparrow Song That Conquered North America

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An Ontario white-throated sparrow sings a new version of the classic song ‘Old Sam Peabody’ – a variation that has only appeared in the Ontario region in the last 5 years. Video by Peter Hawrylyshyn / Macaulay Library.

From the autumn 2020 edition of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Get moving, old Sam Peabody – some white-throated sparrows are singing a new tune.

During the breeding season, the voice of the white-throated sparrow resonates through Canada and the northern United States. Many bird watchers know their song from the mnemonic Old Sam Pea-bo-dy, Peabo-dy, Pea-body or Oh Sweet Ca-na-da. Ca-na-da, Ca-na-da – two pipes followed by a repeated three-syllable phrase.

Research published in Current Biology in August reveals a surprising trend: a new white-throated sparrow song ending in a series of two-syllable phrases originated in western Canada and spread throughout the early 21st century North America. The new ending sounds more like Oh Sweet Cana-Cana-Cana.

Two of the study’s authors – Ken Otter, a biologist who studies animal behavior at the University of Northern British Columbia, and Scott Ramsay, a behavioral ecologist at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario – first heard the abbreviated song in western Canada in 1999. Then they started a project to record white-throated Sparrow songs across North America. To their surprise, they found that sparrows were singing the new melody from west to east.

To find out when and where the new song appeared, Otter and Ramsey collected historic White-throated Sparrow recordings from the 1950s, including more than 300 from the Macaulay Library of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Based on the historical and newly collected recordings, they determined that the song change would take place in just two decades. In 2000, the two-syllable ending was only found in western Canada, but by 2019 all birds up to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario were singing the two-syllable ending. Now it seems that the three-syllable song that generations of bird watchers have learned can only be heard in Far Eastern populations of white-throated sparrows.


How did Ontario birds that breed thousands of miles from British Columbia get this new song so quickly? The team suspected they could pick it up in their wintering areas. As part of their research, they geotagged 50 white-throated sparrows from breeding areas in western Canada. These birds wintered in states like Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri, which are also wintering areas for some white-throated sparrows that breed in the east. Mike Webster, Professor of Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and Director of the Macaulay Library, says this study shows a fantastic example of cultural evolution – the ability of animals to acquire behaviors from other members of their species through teaching, mimicking, or other forms of social Transmission.

“Cultural transmission has helped this variant spread rapidly throughout a wild bird’s range, much like a slang term can spread rapidly through the human population,” says Webster. In other words, some birds may be like trend-setting teenagers in Brooklyn or the San Fernando Valley creating a new phrase, and pretty soon all the cool kids are saying it.

“The study is also remarkable in showing that birds of different song types hibernate close together,” says Webster. “Learning to play songs on the wintering grounds could be responsible for this spread.”

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