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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

This photo of approximately 10 years ago shows Laureen Fabian, on the left, and daughter Caterina Andrews. Fabian went missing last October and her daughter is looking for answers. (Contributed photo)
Laureen Fabian’s disappearance remains a mystery

It’s been a year since she went missing

Adam Schmidt is currently at the BC Children’s Hospital. (GoFundMe/Laurel Miller)
Community comes together for a 15 year old Burns Laker admitted at BC Children’s hospital

A fundraising campaign to support the family is being run now

Last year’s Halloween saw a sunny day and in-person costume contests. (Blair McBride photo)
What’s Burns Lakes’ spooktacular plan for this Halloween?

Trick or treating, online contests and more for this season

WKE students pose with carpentry tools in front of the ADST trailer that will allow the school to have a fully operational mobile wood shop. (Karen Ware photo/Lakes District News)
William Konkin Elementary school undertakes project to teach intentional kindness

Students to learn to build crates, grow produce and share it with community

Daylight savings time ends at 2:00 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 1 2020. (File Photo)
Clocks ‘fall back’ one hour Saturday night

Remember to set your clock back one hour on Saturday night, as… Continue reading

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books as a sticker on the floor indicates a one-way direction of travel between shelves of books at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch, after it and four other branches reopened with limited services, in Vancouver, on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck)
B.C. reports 234 new COVID cases, 1 death of senior who had attended small birthday party

Roughly 5,700 people are isolating due to being exposed to a confirmed case

Burnaby RCMP responded to a dine-and-dash suspect who fell through a ceiling in March 2020. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Suspected dine-and-dasher falls through ceiling of Burnaby restaurant

A woman believed to be dashing on her restaurant bill fell through the kitchen ceiling

A can of Canada Dry Ginger Ale is shown in Toronto on Thursday Oct. 29, 2020. The maker of Canada Dry Ginger Ale has agreed to pay over $200,000 to settle a class-action lawsuit launched by a B.C. man who alleged he was misled by marketing suggesting the soda had medicinal benefits. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joseph O’Connal
B.C. man’s lawsuit over marketing of Canada Dry ginger ale settled for $200K

Soda’s maker, Canada Dry Mott’s Inc., denied the allegations and any liability

Vancouver Island-based Wilson’s Transportation has expanded to fill some of the routes left unserviced by Greyhound as of Nov. 1, 2018. (Black Press files)
B.C. bus companies say they need help to survive COVID-19

Like airlines, motor coaches have lost most of their revenue

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A deer was spotted in October 2020 in Prince Rupert, B.C., with a bright pink yoga ball stuck in its antlers. (Kayla Vickers/Chronicles Of Hammy The Deer Official Page)
Hammy 2.0? Prince Rupert deer spotted with bright pink yoga ball stuck in antlers

The BC Conservation Officer Service is aware of the deer roaming around the city

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan - Black Press Media)
Kelowna Mountie hit with 2nd lawsuit in 2 months for alleged assault

Const. Julius Prommer is accused of breaking a woman’s knee during while responding to a noise complaint

Hirdeypal Batth, 24, has been charged with sexual assault and forcible confinement in relation to an incident in August 2020. (VPD handout)
Man, 24, charged with sex assault after allegedly posing as Uber driver in Vancouver

Investigators believe there could be more victims outside of the Vancouver area

B.C. Premier John Horgan and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee arrive for annual Cascadia conference in Vancouver, Oct. 10, 2018. They have agreed to coordinate the permanent switch to daylight saving time. (B.C. government)
B.C. still awaiting U.S. approval to eliminate daylight saving time

Clocks going back one hour Nov. 1 in Washington too

Most Read