Song Sparrow

Photo by Jean Chamberlain
Pilot Creek Access, Pilot Mountain State Park
October 24, 2020
Photo by Jean Chamberlain
Walnut Bottoms, Bethania, NC
October 13, 2020

Mnemonic description of song:

Hip, hip, hip hurrah boys, spring is here!
Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot

What is known about song sparrow song?


  • Song consists of series of pure notes followed by buzzes, trills and complex notes
  • Sing in bouts
  • Repertoire size typically 5-13 song type (Cassidy 1993)
  • Peak sensitivity is 2 kHz (Catchpole and Slater 2008 p 30)


  • Recognize neighbors song (Kroodsma 2005)
  • Eastern migratory populations don’t share many songs with neighbors (Hughes et al 1998b, Kroodsma 2005)
  • Western US populations do share with neighbors, when neighbor sings responds with same song or another shared with him
    (Cassidy 1993, Beecher et al. 1994, Kroodsma 2005)
  • Use song to discriminate between neighbor and stranger (Stoddard et al 1990)


  • Female sometimes sings but rare (Arcese et al. 1988) and song simpler than males (Nice 1943b)

How and when is song acquired?

  • Produce subsong as early as 13-19 days (Nice 1943b)
  • Learning peaks at 20-60 days (Marler and Peters 1987)
  • Learn a song heard as few as 30 times (Peters et al 1992)
  • Western birds learn during hatchling summer from several adults (Kroodsma 2005)
  • Don’t alter repertoire after first year (Cassidy 1993, Norby et al. 1999)
  • Innate preference for learning conspecific song (Marler and Peters 1987, Marler and Peters 1988b)
  • When isolated from tutors, song is abnormal (narrower frequency range, abnormal organization, more harmonic overtones, fewer elements and longer notes and intervals (Marler and Sherman 1985)

How can we facilitate song learning?

  • Expose to singing adults early and throughout time in rehab
  • Play recordings. Song sparrows have been shown to learn from tape recordings (Marler & Peters 1977,Nowicki et al. 1999)



Arcese, P., P. K. Stoddard and S. M. Hiebert. 1988. The form and function of song in female Song Sparrows. Condor 90:44-50.

Beecher, M D., Stoddard, P. K., Campbell, S. E., and Horning C.L. 1996.Repertoire matching between neighboring song sparrows. Animal Behavior 51:917-23.

Cassidy, A. L. E. V. (1993). Song variation and learning in island populations of Song Sparrows. Ph.D. thesis, Univ. of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Hughes, M., S. Nowicki, W. A. Searcy and S. Peters. 1998b. Song-type sharing in Song Sparrows: implications for repertoire function and song learning. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 42:437-446.

Kroodsma, D. E. The Singing life of Birds. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 2005

Marler, P. & Peters, S. 1977. Selective vocal learning in a sparrow. Science, 198, 519-21.

Marler, P. and S. Peters. 1987. A sensitive period for song acquisition in the Song Sparrow. Melospiza melodia: a case of age-limited learning. Ethology 76:89-100.

Marler, P. and S. Peters. 1988b. The role of song phonology and syntax in vocal learning preferences in the Song Sparrow. Melospiza melodia. Ethology 77:125-149.

Marler, P., and V. Sherman 1985. Innate differences in singing behaviour of sparrows reared in isolation from adult conspecific song. Animal Behaviour 33:57–71.

Peters, S. S., Searcy, W. A. and Marler, P. 1980. Species song discrimination in choice experiments with territorial male Swamp and Song sparrows. Animal Behaviour 28:393–404.

Nice, M. M. 1943. Studies in the life history of the Song Sparrow, part 2. Transactions of the Linnaean Society of New York 6: 1–328.

Nordby, J. C., S. E. Campbell and M. D. Beecher. (1999). Ecological correlates of song learning in Song Sparrows. Behavioral Ecology 10:287-297.

Nowicki, S., Searcy, W. A. & Hughes, M. 1998b. The territory defense function of song in song sparrows: a test with the speaker occupation design. Behaviour, 135, 615-28.

Nowicki, S., S. Peters, W. A. Searcy and C. Clayton. (1999). The development of within-song type variation in Song Sparrows. Animal Behaviour 57:1257-1264.

Peters, S., Marler, P. & Norwicki, S. 1992. Song sparrows learn from limited exposure to song models. Condor, 94, 1016-1019

Stoddard, P. K., Beecher, M.D., Horning, C.L. and Campbell, S.E. 1990. Strong neighbor-stranger discrimination in song sparrows. Candor, 92, 1051-6.