Monday, December 1, 2008

Never again would birds' song be the same

From Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kenn writes: It isn’t often that ornithologists get to document an abrupt change in the song of an entire species of bird, but this is exactly what happened less than four years ago.
Moreover, it happened with a very common bird, the White-throated Sparrow. This beautifully marked native sparrow nests across the eastern two-thirds of Canada and parts of the northeastern United States, winters commonly in most eastern states, with small numbers throughout the west. It’s a backyard bird for literally millions of bird watchers. You would expect that a sudden change in its song would command the attention of legions of birders. But as far as I know, only one reference book has documented this change in vocal pattern.

That reference (I must admit) was my own field guide. It was published in 2000 as the Kaufman Focus Guide to Birds of North America, with a brightly colored cover featuring a Scarlet Tanager. In 2004, however, the marketing department at the publishing company decided that they should change the name of the series from Kaufman Focus Guides to Kaufman Field Guides. So they designed a new cover, the current one that features a bright Yellow Warbler on a white background, and it was issued in early 2005.


I insisted that if we were going to change the cover design, I had to make some improvements to the interior of the book as well. They didn’t want me to do a complete revised edition (and besides, we were busy with the Kaufman Field Guide to Insects), but they said I could make essential changes: adding 8 pages to the introduction, improving a few illustrations, updating some maps, changing some scientific names to conform to the latest pronouncements of the American Ornithologists’ Union. And making an important change to the description of one bird’s voice.


If you find yourself in a position to compare the editions of the focus / field guide, look up the White-throated Sparrow. In the older edition it’s on p. 350, and its song is described as Oh, sweet, Canada-Canada-Canada. In the newer edition, White-throated Sparrow is on p. 358, and its song has changed to Oh, sweet, Kimberly-Kimberly-Kimberly.


Sorry, Canada, but those are the facts.


This morning Kim called me to the window. In the garden was a White-throated Sparrow, foraging on the ground, crisp and bright among the new frost. It had not been there the eve before, and this seemed a gift of this special day, as if song or laughter had carried it aloft and placed it here. The bird wasn’t singing but in my heart I could hear it anyway.

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