The begging calls of male baby Chipping Sparrows mix into what is known as "subsong," a sort of infant babbling. And, very quickly, subsong begins to change to imitations of adult songs. Next spring, when the young male returns for its first breeding season, it will settle in near an older male. Soon it drops all but one of the precursor songs - the one most like the older male's song - and in a few days nearly matches its neighbor note for note.
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Chipping Sparrows: Song Learning Starts Early
Written by Bob Sundstrom
This is BirdNote.
[Chipping Sparrow song]
Few songbirds are more familiar across North America than the Chipping Sparrow. [Chipping Sparrow song] Petite and rufous-capped, Chipping Sparrows breed over much of the continent. They winter in the southern U.S. and Central America.
Yet familiar as the birds may seem, scientists are still unlocking their secrets.
Recent research shows that when baby male Chipping Sparrows beg for food, their first begging calls already show a connection with the songs they will develop. [Chipping Sparrow begging calls] Soon, the young males’ begging calls mix into what is known as “subsong,” a sort of infant babbling for young male birds. And, very quickly, subsong begins to transition to imitations of adult songs.
By the time a young male Chipping Sparrow migrates south in early October, it has developed five to seven “precursor songs” – works in progress, but closer to adult songs.
Next spring, when the young male returns north for its first breeding season, it will settle in near an older male. Soon it drops all but one of the precursor songs – the one most like the older male’s song – and in a few days nearly matches its neighbor note for note. [Chipping Sparrow song]
Then for the real test of its new song – attracting its first mate. [Chipping Sparrow song]
We’re glad you listen to BirdNote. Learn more about how you can help keep the show aloft and singing, on our website, BirdNote.org. I’m Mary McCann.
Support for BirdNote comes from the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy, with online courses that share the wonder and joy of birds. More at All About Birds dot org.
Chipping Sparrow begging call provided by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2012 Tune In to Nature.org October 2018/2020 Narrator: Mary McCann
2009: Liu Wan-chun; Wada Kazuhiro; Nottebohm Fernando. Variable food begging calls are harbingers of vocal learning. PloS one 2009;4(6):e5929.
2007: Liu Wan-Chun; Nottebohm Fernando
A learning program that ensures prompt and versatile vocal imitation.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2007;104(51):20398-403.