Posted by: atowhee | March 17, 2021


If the bird can’t learn birdsong from its neighbors, it may not sing, or sing ineptly. That means no effective courtship and no babies…and we see that happening with an endangered bird in Australia.

Thanks to research by Luis Baptista and other ornithologists we now know that songbirds must learn their songs…the voice is inherited but the tunes are learned. Baptista did his groundbreaking research on Pacific Coast White-crowned Sparrows. He found the learning process depended on adult neighbors of the young bird, not its parents. He further proved that each regional population of sparrows sang its own dialect. We now know the local dialects evolve, changing over time, just like human slang. Ain’t that hip?

Ducks, flycatchers and woodpeckers are born with potential to make the right sounds–neighbors or no. Songbirds are more like hominids, our language is learned and not innate.

I had the wonderful good fortune to be a beginning birder back when Baptista was leading trips for the California Academy of Science. He, too, had learned sparrow language and could imitate a white-crown from Juneau or one from Marin County, and then explain the difference in accent.

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