Since 2000, a strange new type of song in white-throated sparrows has spread across the continent at stunning speed.
The birds were singing something strange.
Ken Otter and Scott Ramsay first noticed it in the early 2000s, when they were recording white-throated sparrows in Prince George, a city in western Canada. The birds are so ubiquitous across the country, and the male’s song so distinct, that bird-watchers have put words to it: Oh sweet Canada, Canada, Canada. But the white-throated sparrows in Prince George were singing something different. They had lopped a note off Canada, so the song sounded more like Oh sweet Cana, Cana, Cana.
At first, Otter and Ramsay, biologists at the University of Northern British Columbia and Wilfrid Laurier University, respectively, thought they had simply discovered a new song dialect unique to sparrows in Prince George. But an even stranger pattern emerged when they and a small team of researchers spent the next two decades gathering archival recordings, crowdsourcing bird songs, and driving hundreds of miles through Canada to record white-throated sparrows. According to a new study out today, the song they first heard in Prince George had spread east across the country—at remarkable speed. By 2017, all white-throated sparrows in western Canada were singing the new song variant and half were singing it as far east as Ontario. Oh sweet Cana, Cana, Cana is taking over Canada.