Written by: Jill Collins, Naturalist
My grandmother, a native of Maiden, North Carolina, told me once that her mother could tell which small, nearby town a stranger was from based on the way they spoke. While someone today may not be able to hear a distinction between one town and the next, there are a number of accents that define larger regions in the United States, such as the “Southern” accent. Birds also have accents. Their songs sound different in different regions of the country. Where the boundaries are between songs and the distance needed for communities to form depends on the bird species. It makes you wonder about other animals and what regional distinctions they might have.
Few relatives and fewer friends replied to my request for bird songs from across the country. One kind aunt-in-law sent sounds from outside her front and back door, though she wrote she had no idea of what was on the recordings. My grandmother, who inspired me to write the blog and has a particular love for birds, wrote back that she was sorry she couldn’t help, but the only birds she hears are crows and one mockingbird. Mockingbirds are mimics. They each have a unique song made up of sounds they hear and might have made a particularly interesting example of regionality, with songs created from impressions of many birds who may express accents.
One bird that expresses a regional accent is the song sparrow. This week, the song sparrows have begun to sing and instead of being glad to hear them, I have concentrated on my attempt to get better and better recordings of their songs for this blog. Even as I write this, my back door is open and I can hear a song sparrow from somewhere near my urban backyard.
When a friend, Steve, called to invite me on a hike the day after Easter, I played the song sparrow song for him and his two sons, Gabe (6), and Simon (2) before we left. We arrived at a trail along the banks of Rocky River within the reservation. For the first time this year, green leaves had appeared on the forest floor and many of the trees had buds. Chickadees, woodpeckers, and brown creepers clamored about the trees that lined the path as we walked. Gabe avoided the mud along the trail, but his younger brother chose to walk through the wettest sections of the path. Steve stopped and pointed to a branch that hung over the river.
“Is that your song?” he asked as a song sparrow on the branch opened its mouth and sang. I pulled out the recorder and fiddled around with the buttons. The song sparrow sang again. I tried the recorder again. It didn’t seem to work. I tried my phone instead. The song sparrow continued to sing, but soon I realized I could not see Steve, Gabe, and Simon. I walked up the trail to find them and the song sparrow flew over the river. Steve held both of his boys by the arm. I pulled out the devices to see if I had gotten anything, but Gabe signaled to me to look at him. He had fallen and scrapped his knee, but he was trying to be quiet so he didn’t disturb my recording, and that is when I realized that while I would love to learn more about bird songs, I needed to pay attention to where I was and who I was with. On the way back along the trail, Gabe twisted the bird whistle I had lent him and, tricked by the sound, three chickadees hopped down to the lower branches close to him. Gabe laughed. He and his father practiced the, “Hey Sweetie,” song as we walked. We skipped a few stones, checked for amphibian eggs in a nearby pool, and found the first wildflower any of us had seen for the year, a colt’s foot budding out.
As I continue to live in Northeast Ohio, I like to notice the small changes unique to our area and the microclimates where we live. I will continue to listen to the birds in different areas of Cleveland Metroparks and observe whether distinctive dialects occur and whether songs in urban and rural reservations differ.
Take a listen for yourself here:
Song Sparrow songs from around the US
And enjoy reading more about bird accents here:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Geographic Variation
The Telegraph: Britain's birds boast a colourful array of regional accents
NPR: Unfamiliar Accents Turn Off Humans And Songbirds