The song sparrow’s song

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As I headed out on a walk this morning, I snapped a picture of this male song sparrow (Melospiza melodia) in full throat. Song sparrows hold forth virtually year-round, but in my family, for some reason, we tend to typecast them as prophets of eternal spring. For example, in her book Appalachian Spring (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), my mother noted under March 13:

Song sparrows are almost always with us, but March brings them in to pack their breeding territory as tightly and as early as possible. Despite the weather, which today was hazy and cold, they all proclaimed, “Hip-hip-hurrah, boys! Spring is here!”

Mom claims she got this mnemonic from an old National Geographic record. I’m here to tell you it’s not widely attested in the popular literature. But someone named Tomm Lorenzin has compiled a helpful BirdSong Mnemonics page that includes our family’s favored onomatopoeia (albeit with an extra hip) alongside two others: Maids-maids-maids-put-on-your-tea-kettle-ettle-ettle (the mnemonic Thoreau preferred), and Madge, Madge, Madge pick beetles off, the water’s hot.

As Dave Berry would say, I swear I’m not making this up.

I try to avoid reading music criticism as a general rule. The following passage from the Birds of North America Song Sparrow monograph (No. 704, Peter Arcese et. al., Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Academy of Natural Sciences, 2002) wouldn’t seem out of place in the liner notes for some old Eliott Carter record:

Song a varied series of 2-6 phrases; 3 or 4 phrases common. Introductory phrases usually with 1-20 pure notes or complexes, but [Citations omitted.]

One nifty thing about song sparrows is that, unlike with many songbirds, the human ear can easily distinguish between the songs of individual birds. Considering the abundant variations within a single bird’s repertoire, and the variations between the many regional dialects, there’s no wonder birders can’t agree on a single onomatopoeic interpretation. But the “spring is here” business may not be pure fancy. I think Frank Chapman (Bird-Life: A Guide to the Study of Our Common Birds, D. Appleton and Company, 1910) captured the essence of it in his description of what was then known as Melospiza fasciata:

His modest chant always suggests good cheer and contentment, but heard in silent February it seems the divinest bird to which mortal ever listened. The magic of his voice bridges the cold months of early spring; as we listen to him the brown fields seem green, flowers bloom, and the bare branches become clad with softly rustling leaves.

So hip-hip-hurrah, boys and girls – and Happy Equinox!

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