New Dialect for the White-Throated Sparrow

Ken Otter, an ornithologist, decided to move to the northern part of British Columbia in 1999. At the time, he had no idea what impact this would later have on his life and especially on his career as an ornithologist. Soon after he settled into his new home, Ken Otter realized that something was afoot regarding one of the songs that the birds in British Columbia were singing.

Essentially, Otter was accustomed to hearing the song of male white-throated sparrows. These are commonplace across most of North America. White-throated sparrows whistle a tune that, at the end, contains a repeating set of three different notes, called a triplet by ornithologists. Otter, together with Scott Ramsay, one of his colleagues, currently affiliated with the Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, listened and paid attention to some recordings taken of the sparrows in the new home of Otter. Even after close observation, the two were not able to identify the musical trio they should have found in the region. Not a long time afterwards, the researchers realized that there was no musical trio in northern British Columbia. Instead, the birds were singing a much more different version of the song. This one ended in two notes, known as a doublet, instead of in a triplet.

Otter, together with Ramsay and other fellow researchers, started looking into this newfound dialect over the course of two decades, During all this time, the novel dialect started spreading all over North America, eventually replacing the old triplet version of the song sung by the sparrows. Apparently, this is the fastest a dialect has ever caught on and spread to birds all over. This information was made public in the academic journal Current Biology, and, according to Otter, it is amazing, but it is definitely not the first time that this happened.

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