As a young boy, growing up in rural Saskatchewan, I loved hearing the haunting song of the white-throated sparrow in the fields and bushes surrounding our home. Having lived in a city for most of my adult life, I haven’t heard the tune as much and now sadly I am finding out the old song may be going extinct.
Researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia are saying that a new song created by a renegade Canadian white-throated sparrow is now sweeping Canada.
In internet terms, it has gone viral.
Birds use songs to attract mates and mark their territory. Traditionally, the white-throated sparrow used a three-note ending, but there has been a rapid change over the last 20 years, as a new two-note ending seems to be storming the white-throated internet world.
Traditionally, white-throated sparrows in western and central Canada sing a song distinguished by its three-note ending. The new song, which likely started off as a regional dialect at some point between 1960 and 2000, features a distinctive two-note ending, and it’s taking the sparrow community by storm. What makes the new ending so viral is a mystery to the study authors, led by Ken Otter from the University of Northern British Columbia.
“These songs are learned—otherwise new variants would not arise or spread,” Otter told Gizmodo. “Where it started could have been a single bird, but it then gets learned by others, and they would form tutors for other birds. It wouldn’t spread from a single bird.”
The new song, which can now be heard from British Columbia through to central Ontario—a distance of over 1,900 miles (3,000 km)—spread between 2000 and 2019, according to the research. The old melody, with its highly musical triplet outro, is now at risk of going extinct.
I am sad to see it go, because I prefer the three-noted version of my childhood.