How To Tell When a Song Sparrow is Angry

Song sparrow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

16 June 2022

Male song sparrows sing to claim territory and avoid fighting with rivals. Each male has a unique song that creates an audio boundary marker that other males are expected to honor. When a rival intrudes, the owner escalates with aggressive signals before he attacks. If you know what to look for, you can tell when a song sparrow is angry.

To learn the escalation steps, “researchers [in a 2013 study at University of Washington led by Çaglar Akçay] recorded songs from 48 sparrows living in Discovery Park in Seattle. To feign an intruder, they perched a stuffed song sparrow in a bush or tree and played the recorded song.

The owners reacted to the stuffed singing intruder as if he was real and escalated as follows:

  1. When the intruder first arrived, the owner matched the intruder’s song. If this didn’t drive off the intruder …
  2. The owner repeatedly flew and landed near the intruder, wing-waving and singing softly. “Wing waving” is vibrating one wing at a time. Soft song is more aggressive than shouting.
  3. When none of this worked the owner attacked the intruder.

This video from the Univ of Washington shows the second step — wing waving and soft song — with narration by one of the researchers. Notice one wing raised and waved at 0:27. Wing raising is a happy greeting between male and female cardinals. Not so with song sparrows!

The stuffed intruder would not leave, even when the owner sang softly, so the owner attacked. Yow!

If a male song sparrow is speaking softly and waving one wing, he’s angry. Learn more at Get off my lawn: Song sparrows escalate territorial threats — with video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, embedded video from University of Washington study in 2013)

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