Singing Like a…Sparrow!

The Song sparrows that began singing in my backyard in early Spring had a very simple melody. I called it “four notes and a trill,” for lack of a better term. I’m sure that the ornithologists have more specific and standardized names for various tones that wild birds chortle, but for me the designation of four notes and a trill helped me to remember the song.

After first listening to potential candidates at AllAboutBirds.org, I remained confused. I required a bit of assistance from the expert birders to put a species name to that song. The Song Sparrow vocalization posted on-line seemed so much more complicated than four notes and a trill. But, it only took a short, five second audio file for a half dozen birders to reply, “Song Sparrow!” At the time, it seems strange that a bird designated as THE Song sparrow, would have such a minimal tune. I contemplated if, perhaps, I had some very lazy singers.

Once I accepted that my Song Sparrow were, perhaps musical minimalists, I was able to match up the bird and its melody fairly quickly. I began identifying them as more than just another little brown bird. They often frequented the backyard feeders, and are a constant presence around the house.

As the summer passed and my recovery from two shoulder surgeries was near complete, I felt comfortable driving the golf cart around the property. Soon, I began to listen to the myriad of birds singing in locations I hadn’t been to in years. The corridor is a mowed path between a half acre patch of weeds with a few shrubs and young trees and another half acre (maybe a bit more) area that contains mature trees including a pin oak, several maple trees, a weeping willow and some scrubby overgrowth. If I sit in the corridor, I can sometimes catch a glimpse of birds that use both areas for hunting and nesting, as they fly across the opening. If I am lucky they land briefly on branches that reach into the open space. Even more than seeing them, I can hear them. But, I must be honest, unless it is a vocalization that I recognize, it becomes part of the noise cloud.

To aid in my efforts to learn more about the birds in the brush, I have been using the BirdNet app. While it isn’t the most reliable aide, it’s proven both helpful and interesting. Rather than employing it as I hear a bird out in the field (which is the intended use of the product) I record the sounds, then play back the recording once I am in my office. It allows me to hone in on a specific set of notes and eliminate much of the noise that seems to cause the BirdNet app to become overwhelmed.

While out in the corridor, I began hearing a vocalization that I referred to as “the little gronk!” This was a fairly complicated melody that ended in a subdued, grumpy growl. Can you hear it in this recording?

You can also hear it at the end of the second vocalization in this recording. I have to say, I think there’s a Carolina Wren over-singing between the two Song Sparrow songs. But, I’m no expert.

Here’s a short video that has both the visual and the audio of a Song Sparrow that was perched atop a tree singing his song.

Well, well, well. The Song Sparrows on our property are not all four-notes-and-a-trill musically challenged individuals. The birds that I’ve recorded farther from the house have more movement in their vocalizations and even have that little, curious “gronk” that now distinguishes them, for me – but not always.

Not too long ago I saw a Song Sparrow perched at the top of a pole very near the house. Here are two versions of the same bird’s tune.

I don’t hear the “gronk” in that guy’s voice, but I find it a bit more interesting than four-notes-and-a-trill. It seems obvious that these plain, little birds make up for their simple appearance in the variety of their melodies.

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