In the Ear of the Listener – A Chipping Sparrow’s Summer Song

Few birdsongs could be more common, more dependable, more characteristic a part of a day in late May, than a Chipping Sparrow’s long level trill. Late this morning – a warm, sunny day with blue sky and big white clouds – a Chipping Sparrow sang from a cluster of small pines just across the road from our front yard. Two other Chipping Sparrows answered with similar dry, rapid trills, each in a different direction. And all through the neighborhood, Chipping Sparrows perched in trees and shrubs and sang, spaced apart in what seemed to be a pretty regular way.

Though a Chipping Sparrow’s song appears to be one of the most simple and unadorned – a long dry trill, or series of chips on one pitch – there are variations. Sometimes it sounds lighter, more airy; at other times, more intense; sometimes it sounds almost musical, with fluctuations in the trills, similar to a pine warbler’s song. Some of this may be in the ear of the listener, I know, but I think some is in the singer, too.

When I left to walk this morning, the Chipping Sparrow in the cluster of small pines across the road was singing from somewhere low in the dark-green needles. It was still singing when I returned home about an hour later, but now perched in the very top of one of the pines. So I paused to admire his clean pale-gray throat and breast and cheeks, with a crisp dark line through the eye, a very bright chestnut-red cap, long tail, and dark-streaked brown and cinnamon back and wings, with white wing bars.

Earlier this morning – and most mornings the past few weeks, when I’ve been awake early enough to listen – a Chipping Sparrow was one of the first singers in the gray light of dawn, probably this same one singing from the small pines now. Its early morning songs are different from any other time of day – short, light bursts of almost delicate trills with a faintly ringing quality. At this time, too, the sleepy mood of a listener and the soft light and damp, still air may well affect the way a bird song sounds – and imagination can color the expression or mood of the music. But even on different mornings, the short, rapid trills of a Chipping Sparrow’s Dawn Song seem almost always to sound light, brisk and airy.

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