A white-throated sparrow is shown in a handout photo. Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, whose paper on the phenomenon was published in June 2020 said most bird species are slow to change their songs, preferring to stick with tried-and-true tunes to defend territories and attract females. (University of Northern British Columbia photo)

A white-throated sparrow is shown in a handout photo. Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, whose paper on the phenomenon was published in June 2020 said most bird species are slow to change their songs, preferring to stick with tried-and-true tunes to defend territories and attract females. (University of Northern British Columbia photo)

White-throated sparrows have changed their tune, B.C. study unveils

Study marks an unprecedented development scientists say has caused them to sit up and take note

White-throated sparrows are changing their tune — an unprecedented development scientists say has caused them to sit up and take note.

Ken Otter, a biology professor at the University of Northern British Columbia, whose paper on the phenomenon was published on Thursday, said most bird species are slow to change their songs, preferring to stick with tried-and-true tunes to defend territories and attract females.

But the shift to this new tune went viral across Canada, travelling over 3,000 kilometres between 2000 and 2019 and wiping out a historic song ending in the process, he said.

“The song is always described as being ‘Oh My Sweet Canada Canada Canada Canada — so that Canada is three syllables. It’s a da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da sound. That’s the traditional description of the song going back into early 1900s,” Otter said in an interview Wednesday.

But now, the song has changed.

“The doublet sounds like Oh My Sweet Cana-Cana-Cana-da. They are stuttering and repeating the first two syllables and they are doing it very rapidly. It sounds very different.”

From British Columbia to central Ontario, these native birds have ditched their traditional three-note-ending song for a two-note-ending variant, he said, adding researchers still don’t know what has made the new tune so compelling.

Otter drew a comparison to people picking up the accent, phrases and pneumonics of a new area they move into.

“This is actually the opposite,” he said.

Male sparrows are showing up singing atypical songs but then others are starting to adopt that, and over time the dialect is actually changing within that site to the new type and replacing the old tune, he said.

“So it’s like somebody from Australia arriving in Toronto and people saying, ‘hey, that sounds really cool,’ mimicking an Australian accent and then after 10 years everybody in Toronto has an Australian accent,” he said.

“That’s why, at least within the scientific community, it’s getting so much interest. It is completely atypical to what you would predict around all the theories that you have about dialects.”

Otter and a team of citizen scientists have found that the new tune is not just more popular west of the Rocky Mountains, but was also spreading rapidly across Canada.

“Originally, we measured the dialect boundaries in 2004 and it stopped about halfway through Alberta,” he said in a news release.

“By 2014, every bird we recorded in Alberta was singing this western dialect, and we started to see it appearing in populations as far away as Ontario, which is 3,000 kilometres from us.”

The scientists predicted that the sparrows’ overwintering grounds were playing a role in the rapid spread of the two-note ending, he said.

Scientists believed that juvenile males may be able to pick up new song types if they overwinter with birds from other dialect areas, and take them to new locations when they return to breeding grounds, which could explain the spread, he said.

So they fitted the birds with geolocators — what Otter called “tiny backpacks” — to see if western sparrows that knew the new song might share overwintering grounds with eastern populations that would later adopt it.

“They found that they did,” he said in the release.

Otter said he does not know what has caused the change, and his team found that the new song didn’t give male birds a territorial advantage over others.

“In many previous studies, the females tend to prefer whatever the local song type is,” he said.

“But in white-throated sparrows, we might find a situation in which the females actually like songs that aren’t typical in their environment. If that’s the case, there’s a big advantage to any male who can sing a new song type.”

The new song can be chalked up to evolution, he said in the interview.

Otter said he prefers the two-note song because it sounds smoother.

“But I’m not a sparrow so it doesn’t really matter which one I prefer,” he said with a laugh.

But the tune may be continuing to change, he said adding scientists were supposed to study it this year but COVID-19 has put a damper on the field season.

“The two note is not the be all and end all because in the last five years we noticed a male that was singing something slightly different than the standard two note doublet song,” Otter said.

“And when we recorded it we noticed he was modifying the amplitude of the first note. And more of them are doing it now. We could be seeing waves of these things that we just never noticed before.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

research

Just Posted

Kitimat’s Water Quality Advisory, which has been in place for just over a week, has been lifted. (Black Press file photo)
Water Quality Advisory in Kitimat lifted

The district has been under a Water Quality Advisory since June 2

On June 16 at 6 p.m., the Kitimat Chamber of Commerce will be hosting a public presentation and discussion with Happipad, a social enterprise, to talk about solutions for affordable housing Kitimat. (Happipad photo)
Affordable housing to be focus of Kitimat Chamber of Commerce meeting

Figures indicate the average Kitimat household needs to make more than $92,000 a year

(District of Kitimat logo)
Hirsch Creek Bridge restricted to single lane traffic

The district is restricting the bridge traffic to legal highway loads only

Artist’s illustration of the proposed Kitimat LNG facility at Bish Cove near Kitimat. (Kitimat LNG illustration)
Haisla Nation surprised by Woodside pull out from Kitimat LNG project

Haisla Nation council states its main focus is now on developing the Haisla-led Cedar LNG project

(Northern Health logo)
Pop-up vaccine clinic tomorrow at the Save-on-Foods parking lot in Kitimat

The clinic will be this Friday, June 11 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Two-year-old Ivy McLeod laughs while playing with Lucky the puppy outside their Chilliwack home on Thursday, June 10, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: B.C. family finds ‘perfect’ puppy with limb difference for 2-year-old Ivy

Ivy has special bond with Lucky the puppy who was also born with limb difference

A million-dollar ticket was sold to an individual in Vernon from the Lotto Max draw Friday, June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of BCLC)
Lottery ticket worth $1 million sold in Vernon

One lucky individual holds one of 20 tickets worth $1 million from Friday’s Lotto Max draw

“65 years, I’ve carried the stories in my mind and live it every day,” says Jack Kruger. (Athena Bonneau)
‘Maybe this time they will listen’: Survivor shares stories from B.C. residential school

Jack Kruger, living in Syilx territory, wasn’t surprised by news of 215 children’s remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School

A logging truck carries its load down the Elaho Valley near in Squamish, B.C. in this file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chuck Stoody
Squamish Nation calls for old-growth logging moratorium in its territory

The nation says 44% of old-growth forests in its 6,900-square kilometre territory are protected while the rest remain at risk

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

Most Read