Bird singing not just for spring breeding season anymore

When young song sparrows practice their song in the fall, it can be almost unrecognizable. (Sharon Stiteler photos)

Have you ever noticed that some birds sing in the fall? It’s not anywhere near breeding season, but certain birds sing this time of year. The reason can vary from species to species.

Some birds are just chatty by nature. Black-capped chickadees always seem to have something to say with their “chick-a-dee-dee-dee” song as they flit from branch to branch looking for insects and seeds. Other birds like nuthatches and downy woodpeckers will follow along to the chickadee tune and they forage together in mixed flocks.

On a warm fall day, hormones may trick a robin into singing a territory song.

Also, any walk near thick bushes will produce dozens of high-pitched “seep” notes as white-throated sparrows, juncos, and song sparrows move through. Among the white-throats in particular you might hear the start of their infamous “Oh, Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” song. It’s a more abbreviated and uncertain sound along the lines of “Oh, Sam Peeeeee.” Those are white-throats hatched this summer practicing their sound for the following year. Many birds known for their songs have to practice the tune over the winter so they can be territory-ready next year. I’ve even found young cardinals quietly singing to themselves that almost seem embarrassed when they notice someone watching them.

Sometimes on a warm autumn day you might hear an American robin singing a full-throated territory song. This may not be practice but an adult singing away. Bird hormones respond to changing light conditions. Robins are early nesting species when they return in spring, and the day length in autumn is similar to the day length in spring. If the temperature is right, the bird hormones kick in and some robins will sing as if they might get a mate. Don’t worry, the hormones die down and they keep going south.

Some birds will sing territorial songs and really mean it – like rock pigeons or house finches. These are birds that have been known to overtake an area relatively quickly. Part of what makes that happen is their ability to attempt to nest in the dodgiest of weather conditions. If a weird warm weather spell lasts long enough in their favor, the new offspring will help populate the area. If the eggs freeze, that’s OK; they’re used to nest failure and will try again later.

It’s nice to have those reminders of bird song in the quiet winter months ahead.

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