Song sparrow behavior strikes a chord as a research topic for a biology professor


It was not the typical Thursday morning for song sparrow IR-IF. While defending his territory from the song of an intruding male, he landed in the net of Jeremy Hyman, a biology professor at Western Carolina University. Held tightly in Hyman’s hand, IR-IF got a set of ankle bands. Hyman measured the bird’s wing length, tarsus and beak before putting him in a white bag to weigh him.

Jeremy Hyman

Hyman released the bird from his grip, and IR-IF flew to a nearby bush to pick at his new bands with his beak. “He’ll be back to defending his territory in no time,” Hyman said.

IR-IF is king of the small garden and shrubs a courtyard adjacent to Hoey Auditorium, and is one of the most aggressive males at WCU. IR-IF’s territory is one of more than 100 on the campus.

Hyman studies 40 of the territories. He researches the behaviors of song sparrows and compares the urbanized population around the campus to other areas. Hyman has loved bird-watching since he was a kid and learned the art of birding from his grandpa in New York City.  “I didn’t know it could turn into a profession,” he said.

He started teaching at WCU four years ago and spent the summer studying local bird populations on campus. “I immediately saw these birds were way more aggressive than the ones I’d known before,” said Hyman, who studied the same species extensively in Pennsylvania.

Hyman measures how aggressive the birds are through playback experiments. He goes into a male’s territory and sets up a small speaker, which plays the song of another male from his field studies in Pennsylvania.

Each male has a repertoire of about five to 13 songs. During mating season, roughly March to September, they sing the songs to attract females and hold their turf. Aggressive males will swoop down and chirp lower-pitched songs at the speaker. Hyman tracks how close the males get to the speaker and how many songs they sing during the experiment.

To make sure the difference is truly between urban and rural populations instead of just between North Carolina and Pennsylvania sparrows, Hyman has done playback experiments at Purchase Knob, a remote area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Haywood County where the birds encounter few people.

While Hyman has detected broad trends in the aggressiveness of rural versus urban populations, personalities vary between individual birds — just like they would within a group of people. For example, not all male song sparrows have the boisterous personality of IR-IF. “You also have these birds that are real wimps year after year,” he said.

Reprinted in edited format with permission of the Smoky Mountain News.