Volume 12, Issue 45 ~ November 4 - November 10, 2004
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Earth Journal
by Gary Pendleton

White-Throated Sparrow

In fall, many birds have gone silent or left for warmer latitudes. A few of the songbirds remain quietly behind, and they are joined by a small number of species that will quietly spend the colder months here in what passes for a winter haven.

In this break from the season of song, let’s consider what makes a songbird.

By one way of looking at it, a songbird is simply a bird that sings. Scientifically, the very large group of birds commonly known as songbirds are referred to as Oscines (OSS-ih-neez).

Oscines are the largest sub-order of the largest order of birds, the Passerines, or perching birds. So songbirds are perching birds.

In North America, the only perching birds that are not technically considered songbirds are flycatchers. Flycatchers are sub-oscine passerines. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Crows, which are excellent perchers, are not known for their singing ability. Yet these biggest of all the oscine passerines are indeed considered songbirds. So are nuthatches, creepers and swallows, all birds not known for the quality of their song.

The white-throated sparrow is a small passerine that overwinters in the eastern and southern states. It is well known for its song, which it occasionally sings even in winter, far from its breeding grounds in the northern United States and Canada. It typically sings two short notes followed by three long, quavering notes, producing a very musical sound. The notes are clear with a plaintive tone. You’re especially likely to hear one when days are warm and sunny.

The white-throated is bright for a sparrow, with yellow spots, called lores, adjacent to the upper bill, plus white stripes on the head and, of course, a white throat.

It may be true that all songbirds sing to advertise their interest in mating, but it is not true that all bird songs are musical. The white sparrow is very musical; perhaps only the wood thrush has a better reputation as a vocalist.

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